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Slithered Here from Eden

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Keith sets out at dawn.

Desert shrubland sprawls around his tiny cottage and the nearby shed. A long, dirt-paved drive connects his home to a little-used access road that cuts through the the barren terrain. Keith’s nearest neighbors are some thirty-odd miles away at the nearest park ranger station. Iverson dropped in to check on him once in the first week after he moved in; since then, it’s been nothing but solitude.

And that’s just how Keith likes it. While others might balk at the work asked of him in exchange for room and board, Keith finds it immensely freeing. Better than any office job he might’ve lined up, certainly. He spends his days visiting any number of dozens of carefully monitored plots across the flatland deserts and canyon-rim forests, collecting ecological data on everything from dead biomass and understory vegetation to changing wildfire regimes and weather trends.

If he can, Keith prefers to hike to his daily destination. It’s more thorough, he thinks, to tread through the very areas he’s observing. He gets a better impression of the local songbird and insect populations; he can keep an eye on invasive species and catch peculiarities along the way. And just as importantly, he enjoys it. His long legs carry him miles and miles without tiring out— a trait he shares with his mother, apparently— and every trek into flame-scorched ponderosa forests or along sun-streaked gorges reminds him of hiking with his father.

For longer trips, Keith climbs astride his hoverbike and shoots across the scrublands, leaving a billowing trail of red dust behind him. Depending on the rotation of his work, he might find himself weaving through red sandstone buttes, or examining firecracker beardtongues in the cinder hills, or pacing between the ponderosas and aspens that dot mountainsides.

And even on his days off— like this one— Keith still finds himself tugged out into the wilderness by a longing that he can’t quite place. Maybe it’s because he grew up in a house so similar, on a patch of shrub-strewn desert that might as well be identical; maybe it’s because of how his father loved the land, always of a mind to protect it. Regardless, nothing quite soothes Keith like heading into the wilds with his hiking pack, a couple of water bottles, and a sketchbook ready to be filled.

The first rays of sunlight catch on dew drops still clinging to stubby brush and cacti. Dawn bathes the dusty earth in warmth and strikes the heights of limestone formations; it makes the skies pink and gold and dayflower blue. Keith pulls out his phone to snap pictures as the mood strikes him. His camera roll steadily ticks up as he captures sights that never quite lose their natural magic.

After breakfast atop a small outcropping— a cheese stick and a handful of spicy trail mix funneled into his open mouth— he heads deeper into the expanse. Keith scales rises and descends into rocky valleys. He stumbles upon a creek lined by pronghorn antelope, all of them quick to spring away at the first whiff of him, and skirts around a family of javelina sniffling through the brush.

In an exploratory mood, a gut inclination has Keith picking his way down a slope into a small, river-bottomed canyon, all while keeping an eye out for snakes curled among the rocks. He can hear the swollen rush of water well before he sees it and knows the banks must be overrun. It’s no great surprise— as he’d compiled his daily observations last night, he’d noted that torrential storms were passing through some twenty or thirty miles northwest. Flash flood warnings had ribboned the bottom of the weather app, and the park had even sent out a bulletin cautioning hikers against being caught downriver of the storms.

At the canyon’s bottom, Keith reaches up to smooth his hand up a limestone wall and finds it still wet. The damp waterline sits a foot above his reach, even on his tiptoes, and inwardly he marvels at how powerful the flood must’ve been. He snaps pictures and marks a few notes in his sketchbook, pinning an estimate on the floodwaters.

But as he turns to river itself— coursing well over its usual banks, sure, but a pale shade of the behemoth that swept through here last night— Keith freezes in place.

A snake.

Or part of one? He blinks. It’s a tail, long and limp where it winds through the rocky canyon bed. The snake it belongs to has to be six feet, at least. Or maybe eight? More? Keith draws out the hunting dagger his mother gave him and steps warily, giving the creature a wide berth.

Wide-eyed, he follows the twists and turns of gleaming black scales. The narrow tail grows into a serpentine body as thick as Keith’s thighs, then his waist, then larger still. It is, without question, massive. He’s baffled, wondering how the hell a full grown anaconda might’ve wound up in northern Arizona, when the scales abruptly come to an end.

And from the waist up, it’s a man.

“Holy shit. Holy shit,” Keith murmurs, still holding tight to the dagger as he slings his pack off his shoulder and starts rummaging for his first aid kit.

He carefully picks his way through the rain-washed rocks and oily black snake coils before dropping to his knees beside the unconscious man who looks not much older than Keith himself.

He’s broad with muscle, his wide chest and shoulders tapering into a slender waist and hips studded with dark, glinting scales. Below that, he’s all snake— thirty feet long in total, maybe, and thick enough to crush a man in his coils. His right arm is dark and jagged, fingers ending in long claw-tips that look perfectly designed for rending flesh and slicing through bone. And through the slivered gap of parted lips, Keith thinks he sees the tips of pearled fangs.

But the rest of him is so… human. Hair— long and dark, aside from a few piecey sections of white that frame his face— lies knotted and tangled around his shoulders. He’s square-jawed with handsome features, if noticeably scarred across his face. And his chest. And around his shoulders, too. A lot of him is scarred, actually.

Hands trembling, Keith slips his dagger back into its sheath and instead feels for a pulse. It’s there, strong but slow, and the rise and fall of the half-snake, half-man’s chest is a comforting sign. His pale skin is mottled with ugly bruises, and Keith wouldn’t doubt there being broken ribs under the worst of the purpling discoloration along the man’s flank.

Keith winces sympathetically, remembering the way he’d looked after his first motorcycle accident. Nothing to do but let those mend on their own.

So instead he turns his attention to the scrapes and cuts he can dress with his modest first aid kit. He cleans and disinfects the gouges across the man’s palms, then winds bandages around his hands; he sticks bandaids over the shallow cuts that band his upper arms. And for one particularly deep gash, Keith puts the careful stitching he learned from his uncle to use. Throughout it all, the half-snake man doesn’t even twitch or sigh, too deeply unconscious for anything to register.

Finally finished tending the man to the best of his abilities, Keith sits back and draws the back of his hand across his forehead. The sun’s already crawled high above them, drying the banks of the river and the canyon walls. In no time at all, every stone down here will be scorching.

He chugs water and debates what to do next. Even if his unwitting patient is partially serpent and cold-blooded, baking under the sun at full-strength seems less than ideal. Keith works quickly— with some sticks, twine, and the shirt off of his back, he creates a little canopy to shade the snakeman from the waist up.

It isn’t quite perfect, obviously. Keith’s light flannel shirt may be oversized, but even so it can’t fully cover the breadth of the man lying in its shade. Worried about his charge waking with blistering sunburns, Keith fishes out his bottle of spray sunscreen and gives the man’s pale, heavily-scarred skin a generous coat.

And then he wipes his hands off on his tank top, plunks down on a nearby rock, tucked in the remaining shade near the canyon wall, and sighs.

There’s no cell signal when Keith pulls out his phone to check the time. No surprise there. He ends up snapping a dozen pictures, hands still trembling with shock and wonder, to hold onto as some kind of proof. Even now, even staring down at his own screen, a part of Keith can barely believe this is real. After, he slumps back down on his rock and digs into his pack for a homemade energy bar. The dates and chopped nuts stick between his teeth as he chews, inquisitive gaze trained on the curious creature lying unconscious just ten feet distant all the while.

A little calmer, Keith has the clarity to observe that this half-snake guy is— well, he’s ridiculously good looking. Aside from the wicked arm and twenty-five feet of serpentine body. And even those aren’t bad, exactly…

But it’s his face that really holds Keith’s attention. The flop of his long, two-toned hair, the fullness of his dry, parted lips, the chiseled planes of his high cheeks and shapely jaw. And his pecs— they’re more than a handful, studded with dark nipples and the occasional scar. Hell, the slackened muscle running along his arms is considerable enough on its own; Keith can scarcely imagine what it must look like bunched and flexed, biceps straining.

Eventually, he has to look elsewhere. Keith studies the high canyon walls and wonders where the strange man came from. Upstream, likely. Caught in the deluge as the storms funneled rainwater through dry ravines, curtains of it falling from the hard plains and into the canyons that ribbon the region. It’s not unheard of for inexperienced hikers to drown in flash floods spawned miles and miles away, and Keith wonders if something similar happened here: the waters catching the snakeman by surprise and sweeping him into the rushing current, bashing him against jagged stone along the way.

When he looks back, the man still hasn’t moved. His impressive chest continues to rise and fall, though, and that makes Keith smile.

Out of his bag, he plucks his sketchbook and a soft pencil. Keith flips through pages already filled with detailed drawings of blue larkspurs and red-tailed hawks and wind-twisted juniper trees until he hits a blank slate. He starts with big gestures of the man’s overall form— his body laid out on the red stone, the lengthy twists of his thick tail, strong arms stretched out beside him— and works to capture the reptilian gleam off of his scales, noting how they stretch up over his hips and dot his flanks. On a new page, Keith creates a likeness of his sleeping expression, and by late afternoon, he’s filled a dozen more pages with studious drawings of the man with the snake tail.

Keith eventually yawns, drinks from his water bottle and settles back against the canyon wall. It’s warm. His supplies sit heavy in his lap. And the strange man in his care has yet to move an inch.

The light spilling down the opposite side of the canyon is harsh, too bright where it gleams on bands of pale limestone. With pinched brows, Keith closes his eyes in the hopes of avoiding a headache from the glare and ponders what he ought to do next. Leave? Return with his hoverbike? Bring food, in case the snakeman is too weak to move?

 

With a sudden lurch some time later, Keith wakes— warm, tired, disoriented. Judging by the shifted sunlight spilling into the canyon and the long-grown shadows, hours have passed.

And Keith is alone.

His hand settles on the grip of his dagger as he stares at the place the half-snake man had lain, hyper aware that he could be anywhere now. Maybe lurking behind him. Maybe lying in wait. Maybe planning to return and make a meal of the wiry young man dumb enough to fall asleep in his presence.

The sketchbook nearly spills from his lap as Keith stands. He catches it reflexively, stuffs it into his pack, and bolts. Wary and worried, he hurries back up the slope as quickly as he dares, cautious of loose rocks and venomous serpents and at least one nearby snakeman who could probably swallow him whole.

Years of track and distance running make themselves useful as he books it home, where he locks the doors and closes the blinds, jittery with the possibilities of what might be following him. After making sure his pistol is loaded and lying on the coffee table in easy reach, he sits down on the futon in what passes for a combination living-dining-kitchen area, dagger in his lap, and waits for some sound to scratch at the windows or scrape across the planks of the porch out front.

Nothing comes. Not as far as Keith can tell, at least. He’s too on edge to think of sleep, but he eventually retreats to the bedroom and tucks himself under the covers anyway. He lays there and flicks through the pictures on his phone— plain proof, if anyone needs it, of what he found in the bottom of that rainwashed canyon. He could send them to his family, to his friends, to the rangers and researchers at the nearest station. He could get on his hoverbike and hightail it out of here, cherry-red lights streaking through the darkness.

But the longer Keith stares at the photos, the less inclined he is to do anything of the sort. It’s hard to look at the bruised and crumpled form lying among the rocks and fear for some slinking attack in the night. His panic had been born more out of fear of the unknown than from the snakeman himself. He’d had ample opportunity to do Keith harm, after all— to eat him, if he’d liked— but had simply disappeared instead. Maybe he was more frightened of Keith than the human was of him.

And besides…

Keith frowns. Sharing these photos with anyone, no matter how well-meaning, could send everything spiraling out of hand in a viral instant. And attention, whether from the media or government suits or gawkers eager to make a spectacle out of hunting for some new and novel cryptid, is the last thing Keith wants— for himself or for his peaceful corner of the world. The delicate ecosystem he’s trying to help understand and protect doesn’t need people crawling the hills to find a man who, as far as Keith can tell, meant him no harm and fled at the first opportunity.

That’s more than enough for sympathy to take root in Keith’s heart. One by one, he deletes the pictures. These barren deserts are home to the both of them— and the coyotes and rattlesnakes and mountain lions, too— and the wilderness is as much his right. Keith would take no joy in seeing the man with the snake tail exposed and run to ground on his account.

He still has his drawings, anyway. Keith flips through his sketchbook to the pages from earlier today, revisiting each one with a gently furrowed brow. He can’t help being curious and wishing to know more, but the sketches satisfy him well enough. He has these, at least, to hold onto and remind himself of his brush with something singularly fantastic and mysterious, an experience quickly crystallizing in wonderment—

And… there’s a drawing in here that isn’t his.

It’s tucked on a page behind his studies of the man’s serpentine tail and handsomely curved chest, of his sleep-softened expression. It’s done in the same soft, dark pencil Keith had used this afternoon— a tight scrawl of a sketch, definitely not done by the hand of a practiced artist, but Keith recognizes the subject at once all the same.

It’s him. Him, Keith. Asleep against the rocky canyon wall. A lock of hair fallen between his eyes as his head tips to one side, cushioned on a bare shoulder.

For a moment, Keith’s heart goes still. As he runs his fingers over the dark graphite that shades his hair, a little of it transfers to his skin. In the same way he’d studied the man with the snake tail, he’d been studied in turn.

It’s… oddly reassuring. The half-snake man could’ve trapped him, could’ve eaten him, could’ve curled around and crushed him the way pythons can do to boars and deer, but all he’d done was mirror back the interest Keith had shown in him. He’d understood, maybe, that Keith had only been trying to help.

Less rattled, Keith finally calls home, nibbling at his thumbnail as the line rings.

“Keith? It’s a little late,” his mother says, tone soft and amused. Her tone takes a sudden shift. “Is something wrong? Do you need me to head over?”

“No. No, I’m fine. I just… I saw something on the trail today,” he says, picking at the hem of his jeans as he decides on the right approach. “A snake. A huge one. Did dad ever mention seeing anything like that?”

There are muffled sounds in the background. Voices. His uncles, maybe, over for dinner and drinks. Krolia hums. “He told me once that he stumbled upon one very large and very territorial diamondback,” she says, a small, snorting laugh slipping through. “And it chased him all the way back to his pickup. He vaulted into the truck bed to get away.”

Keith smiles, eyes slipping shut, and he makes a thoughtful sound. “Well, I didn’t get chased, luckily.”

“You had your blade on you?” his mother asks, concern lacing the question.

“Yes. Always,” Keith responds, drawing out his dagger to stare at its gleaming edges. “But it was… special. Rare. Didn’t want to kill it. Didn’t need to,” he adds. “It took off rather than come after me.”

“Good,” Krolia mutters, “or I’d be out there snake-hunting right now.”

Keith laughs through his smile, believing every word of it. He can hear the murmurs of his uncles’ low voices and the faint clinking of tea or whiskey being served. “I’ll let you go, mom. Love you.”

“And I love you,” she responds, clear and purposeful. Behind her voice, two more chime in. “And so do Kolivan and Antok. Be careful out there, baby. Call one of us if you need anything.”

Keith stares at the screen for minutes after he hangs up, the last of his lingering anxieties laid to rest by the sound of his mom’s voice. He hadn’t really expected any momentous revelations from her or the memories of his father, anyway. When it comes to information on obscure creatures that may or may not exist, Keith has a more promising contact.

“Keith,” his old roommate greets as he picks up the call. “What’s so urgent you couldn’t send me a text, buddy?”

“I have a question you’re going to find really weird,” Keith answers, straight to the point as he settles back against his pillow, idly flipping his dagger with his free hand.

“Oh boy.” The background noise stops, like a movie’s been put on pause. There’s a faint shuffle, like Hunk is settling in, too. “Let’s hear it.”

“Are snakemen like… a thing?” There’s a silence that stretches, broken only by Hunk’s uncertain inhale. Keith hurries to give him details, lest he be misunderstood. “Like, from the waist down it’s a snake, and the waist up it’s a guy. Have you heard of those? Is there stuff out there about them?”

“Oh yeah, totally. Like a naga, right? Yeah, that’s a thing. You can play a naga in Monsters and Mana, you know. I mean, you’d know if you’d actually read the manual like I asked you to,” he grumbles, just loud enough for Keith to hear.

On the other end of the line, Keith rolls his eyes. The Monsters & Mana manual is a thousand-page tome with too many tables of statistics to bother with. And besides, Keith had been more than content with his half-orc hunter and pet wolf— he’d had no real inclination to even consider other options.

“One sec, let me send you some pics from my player guide,” Hunk says, audibly flipping through pages. His tone is oddly playful as he adds, “I think the art might be to your liking.”

Keith’s eyebrows lift but he lets it slide without comment, more focused on getting insight into whatever naga are.

One by one, the pictures load. They aren’t of the highest quality, but they’re plenty enough for Keith to connect the dots. The Monsters & Mana illustration example is a man bare and bronze-skinned from the waist up, perched upon a coil of glimmering golden scales. A few details here and there differ from Keith’s brush with the naga in the canyon, of course, but it’s near enough for him to call it a confident match.

“Hunk, this is just what I was looking for,” he breathes into the phone, immensely grateful for the lead. “Thanks. You’re a lifesaver.”

“Oh, no worries. Always happy to assist my friends in discovering new... interests.” Hunk says it like it’s careful phrasing, but there’s good humor behind every word. He clears his throat and says, “I’ll, uh, let you do what you will with that new search term, buddy. Have a good time, okay?”

Keith beams, though the other man can’t see it. “Yeah, you too. Night, Hunk.”

Keith’s ensuing google search turns up a wide array of conflicting results. There are more wholly reptilian depictions of naga from various video games and fantasy series intermixed with depictions from ancient myths that don’t quite mesh with the man Keith encountered, either. And a surprising amount of porn, too. Or maybe that’s not surprising?

Either way, Keith closes his laptop with a sigh and returns to his sketchbook instead, retracing the curves and careful shadows he’d drawn of the half-drowned naga. It’s nearly sunrise before he finally slips into slumber, his last waking thoughts of claws and scales and a pretty face to match them.

 


 

Weeks pass without any more surprises.

The memory of his encounter with the rainswept naga never quite fades, though. As Keith roams the miles and miles of rocky shrubland and desert surrounding his outpost, he jumps at the hiss of wind over the sand and every dark, gleaming flash of kingsnakes and racers as they slip across the sun-bleached ground. But that’s all it ever is— the usual sights and sounds of the desert. Nothing so remarkable as a lone and sizeable naga, no matter how watchfully Keith scans the hills and horizons.

And maybe that’s what distracts him as he navigates his way down a rocky hillside. It only takes one slight misstep for his ankle to turn in a direction it shouldn’t, and then Keith is tumbling downhill with enough momentum to bounce as he hits the cactus-dotted stones at the bottom.

A groan rattles out as he pushes himself up on wobbly arms, aching all over. His cheek stings from a considerable slice he must’ve taken on a jagged rock on the way down. Blood drips down his chin, cutting through the dusty dirt coating his skin; dark crimson stains his shirt and dots the dry earth where it falls. And very quickly, Keith realizes he’s fucked.

His ankle isn’t broken, but it is badly sprained. Keith crumples repeatedly in the attempt to gather his legs under him and stand. His phone took the fall even worse than he did— it emerges from his pocket in a crushed mess, completely unresponsive. His pack still hangs from one shoulder, thankfully, but its zippered pouch must’ve come loose; a number of his possessions are strewn down the hillside, glinting under the sharp sun, and Keith can’t find his emergency sat phone among what’s left.

Judging by the sun and his own familiarity with the area, Keith places himself about ten miles out from his house. It’s a doable distance, if agonizing to contemplate. With breaks to rest, it’ll take him well into the chill of night to make it home.

As he tries to staunch the flow of blood from the cut along his cheek with the bunched-up front of his shirt, Keith hears it— a gravelly hiss, faint but growing by the second. Something moving over sand and stone. Something large.

Keith can guess who it might be well before he appears, and every ounce of self-preservation in his narrow frame has him doing a desperate backward crabwalk, wincing every time his useless foot catches on the uneven earth. He manages to struggle a little quicker as he sees the same dark-scaled naga from before suddenly appear over a stony rise, slipping toward him as quick and easy as ink runs down a page.

With hands aching from clawing across the stone-strewn earth, Keith realizes it won’t be enough. He simply can’t put enough distance between himself and the inhuman figure slithering toward him with purpose. Harried and cornered, he fishes out his dagger from the sheath hung at his hip and points it at the advancing naga.

As predicted, Keith is overtaken with absolute ease. High above him, the broad, sloped shoulders of the man he’d once bandaged and stitched blot the sun. Cast in silhouette, the naga’s face is nigh impossible to read.

“I’m not gonna be an easy meal,” Keith warns, angling the dagger upward, not quite sure where to stab. There’s so much of the naga to confront, and all the most human, vulnerable parts of him currently sit out of reach.

“Noted,” the naga replies, tone as dry and flat as the desert horizon. “Not that I was planning on eating you.”

Keith’s grip on his dagger nearly slips in surprise. He hadn’t expected the naga to speak a human tongue at all— much less in a pleasant voice that wouldn’t be out of place in audiobooks or GPS navigation app. His eyes narrow. “Then why are you here?”

“You saved me.”

“I… not really,” Keith says, squinting up at the mysterious man. He sags, exhausted and hurting, but continues to cling tight to his blade.

“It would’ve been easy to kill me. You didn’t,” the naga points out. As if sensing that his imposing stature might be setting Keith on edge, he backs off. Beside Keith, he works his long tail into a ropey pile and then drapes his upper body over the thick, iridescent black coils. It brings him down to Keith’s level, more or less, his folded arms pillowed on his own tail and his chin resting atop them.

And this close, Keith can see the naga’s open eyes for the first time. They’re a warm, smokey grey ribboned through with streaks of silver; at the center of each is a small, narrow slit of a pupil. Around them sits a fringe of lashes so full and heavy that Keith is tempted to reach out and brush his thumb against them, if only to assure himself that they— and the rest of the man coiled beside him— are really real.

Keith lets his dagger droop a fraction as the naga makes no move to lunge or strike. He still scarcely dares to blink, though, instead raking in every detail he can as he is intently studied in return. There’s impressive, supple power in those arms and the sloping muscle down the naga’s bare back, and nary a dark, raw mark left from when Keith first found him in that canyon riverbed. The same old scars wrap his arms and torso, and there are even patches in the length of his tail where Keith can spy healed-over gouges and missing scales. But the most prominent scar is still the mark that bridges his nose, sitting just under that warm, curious stare.

“I could help you,” the naga says, and Keith catches the telltale little gleam of pointed fangs as he speaks. “Like you did for me.”

“You familiar with sprained ankles?” Keith asks as he leans to one side and carefully slips his dagger back into its sheath, eyeing the naga all the while.

The question gets him a smile and a slow, lazy blink. Further down his long body, a section of tail unfurls and flops against the earth. “Don’t have any to sprain. But I could get you home.”

“Home… would be good,” Keith admits, nibbling on his bottom lip. Being escorted to his house by a massive naga is certainly better than being caught out here by nightfall, blind and hobbling on a bad leg through rattler nests and uneven terrain. “Uh, do you have a name?”

The naga’s attention turns inward for a moment, his expression thoughtful. “You can call me Shiro.”

“Shiro.” Keith gives him a quick smile. “I’m Keith.”

“Keith,” Shiro repeats back as he slides closer, a clawed hand raised toward him. Then he freezes, gaze flitting to the sheathed dagger on Keith’s hip. Soft and slow, he adds, “I’m not going to hurt you.”

Keith gives him a tentative nod, still halfway reclined on bent elbows. “Yeah. Okay. I’m not going to hurt you, either. I was just— reacting, earlier.”

Shiro’s hand eases toward him inchingly slow, as if waiting to be stopped. His curled fingers ghost over the open slice down Keith’s face, a hair shy of making contact as he traces the length and breadth of the blood-sticky wound. Shiro’s handsome brows upturn, pained on his behalf.

“It’ll be okay,” Keith croaks. The late afternoon sun beating steadily down on him isn’t helping matters, though. “I’ve looked worse. Just need to get home and get fixed up.”

“I’ll carry you.”

Without another moment’s waste, Shiro’s right arm— as dark as coal dust, skin textured like burned-through wood— slips under his knees. His other arm loops around Keith’s waist, and in an instant he’s lifted up into the naga’s impressively muscled arms.

It’s not… bad. Keith is in mild agony, yes, but there’s something unexpectedly soothing about being effortlessly lifted seven feet off the ground and cradled against a broad, scarred chest. Over Shiro’s shoulder, he can see the sinuous ripple of his dark tail behind them, scales midnight black and beautifully iridescent.

They’ve already been traveling for minutes when Keith realizes that he has yet to give Shiro any directions. “Oh. Oh, my place is southwest of here, ten miles or so—”

“I know the way,” Shiro assures him. At Keith’s pinched and doubtful expression, he clarifies. “Your scent is easy to follow.”

Keith digests that as Shiro carries him miles through the desert, weaving through sagebrush and wind-withered limestone formations. He gets the impression that Shiro could slither even quicker if he was unencumbered. If he wasn’t so careful not to jostle Keith or shift him in his arms.

Keith appreciates the extra care. He can feel his ankle swelling in his boot, along with an overall soreness as every bump and scrape from his fall starts to throb. His slashed face stings something fierce. A headache is brewing behind his temples, too. Well after the shock and stupor of his predicament and current rescue fades, it finally occurs to Keith to raid his first aid kit; while supported in Shiro’s arms, he manages to fish some extra strength tylenol from his dangling backpack and swallow them down with the last of his bottled water. And after that, he squints his eyes shut and slumps into Shiro.

The sun hangs low near the distant mountains when they finally reach the small, lonesome cottage. Shiro gently lowers him to the steps of the front porch, his clawed hands steady and supportive.

“Thanks,” Keith murmurs as he finds his balance. He tests his ankle with a little weight and finds it fares better now that he’s not frantically trying to stagger to his feet. Still... holding onto Shiro for stability as he walks the short distance to the front door won’t hurt, either. “I’m gonna go in and put some ice on this, clean up my face, drink some whiskey, and pass out.”

Shiro only observes him, the bulk of his long, snakelike body stretching down the porch steps and into the walkway. “You don’t need any more help?”

“I think we’re even, Shiro,” Keith says, grimacing as an attempt to smile tugs the messy cut along his face just wrong. “Thank you for bringing me back. Would’ve been a hell of a walk by myself. I mean, I like sleeping under the stars as much as the next guy, but… not like this,” he snorts, gesturing down at his dirt-coated clothes and gingerly held ankle.

Shiro smiles wide, sharp fangs bared in his excitement. “I like sleeping under the stars, too. I went so long without seeing them, but I— I— I should let you go rest,” he finishes reluctantly, smile softening until it disappears in the dimming light of dusk.

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m beat,” Keith agrees, still lingering in the open doorway despite his body crying out for tending. “I’ll see you around?”

Shiro’s chin lifts as he nods a quick affirmative. The undulating movement of his long tail carries him backward, down the steps and deeper into the falling dark. “I won’t be far.”

 


 

Apparently not.

When Keith shuffles out onto his porch the next morning, he finds a stack of his possessions sitting on the stairs: his binoculars and his satellite phone, both scuffed from his fall on the rocks; a smushed energy bar; his aviator sunglasses, one of the lenses cracked; and his hat, dusty and rumpled. All things that had fallen off of his person or slipped from his pack as he tumbled halfway down that slope.

And beside all of that sits a slain rabbit and a handful of small, brown speckled eggs— quail, if Keith has to guess. But there’s no sign of shimmering black scales in the distance. No gentle hiss of a smooth, slithering belly running over stone and sand.

So Keith awkwardly bends and gathers up his things and Shiro’s gifts and hobbles back inside with them. A night of ice and elevation have worked wonders for his ankle, which is already half as swollen as it was yesterday. His face is another story, and he’s pretty sure he’s going to need stitches.

But he has a couple of hours before his mom shows up to take him down to the hospital, so Keith boils the quail eggs for breakfast and watches the sun finish its rise. After, he skins the rabbit and roughly cleaves it into portions before storing the meat in the freezer. The longer he can manage without making a trip into town for groceries, the happier he is.

Two days later, he wakes to more gifts in the same vein. Shiro brings them in the night, as Keith sleeps, like he’s avoiding a direct meeting. Quail and grouses and small game are the most common. Eggs, too, and flowers plucked from desert plants and blooming cacti. Once, Shiro even leaves behind something Keith thinks might be a shard of meteorite.

The furtiveness of it is still a mystery. Shiro is shy, maybe. Or perhaps reclusive gift-giving is normal for naga.

After another week, Keith is impatient for answers. With a blanket draped around his shoulders, he sits on the porch swing in his pajamas and boots and waits. It’s a pretty enough way to spend a night, watching the moon and stars rise along the horizon, the Milky Way bright as it crosses the nighttime sky. Better still when Shiro finally— cautiously, almost reluctantly— approaches him out of the star-strewn dark.

“Why are you being so sneaky?” he asks as Shiro slowly slips up the steps. Keith eyes today’s offerings, which consist of a carefully tied bundle of herbs and a clutch of eggs, all of it held in a plaid shirt that looks suspiciously like the one he abandoned in that canyon the first time he saw Shiro. “What’s with all the presents? Not that I don’t enjoy them.”

Almost guiltily, Shiro slides back down the stairs as Keith stands and paces toward him. “I don’t know.” After a lengthy pause, he admits, “I wanted to earn your trust. Make a good impression after… startling you.”

“You don’t have to do that.” At the questioning little tilt of Shiro’s head, Keith adds, “I already trust you. Wouldn’t be standing out here like this if I didn’t.”

“Oh.” Awkwardly, Shiro hands him the shirt-wrapped bundle of eggs and herbs.

“Do you want to come inside?” Keith offers as he tugs the screen door open.

Shiro peers behind him and into the small house, eyes glinting off of the yellowed light that spills out as Keith flips a switch. His nose wrinkles in some faint apprehension. “Will I fit?”

Keith leans to one side and looks around Shiro, considering the mass of scaly tail ribboned behind him. The very tip curls and gives a little wave. “Uh… pretty sure? But if it’s too tight, we could always sit out here on the porch. If you’d rather.”

But Shiro seems to like the cottage interior, despite knocking his head into the doorframe as he first enters. He marvels at the watercolors and sketches pinned to the board above the desk, and finds Keith’s bright red coffee mug adorable, and curiously flicks at the string lights shaped like stars that decorate the walls. And he fits, most importantly, with his long tail either curled under him or woven back and forth across the floor. Keith just has to be mindful of where he steps.

He tries his best to be a good host to a guest he knows almost nothing about. Shiro is still, largely, a mystery. Keith has no idea what he eats or how he feeds— Like a man? Like a snake, with unhinged jaws?— or even what to offer to make him comfortable. While Shiro avidly explores the sparse living room, Keith fixes a couple of glasses of water and, for lack of any better ideas, a few peeled boiled eggs on a plate.

Shiro goes wild for them. “You made this? They’re so good!”

Keith grins as the naga pops three into his mouth in quick succession. The ripple down Shiro’s throat suggests he’s swallowing them whole.

“Yeah. Medium-boiled’s the only way to go,” he says as he splits one with a paring knife and nibbles into the bright yolk. “Don’t even use a timer or anything. Got a foolproof method.”

It’s fascinating to watch Shiro arrange himself into a comfortable sitting position in his living area, patient as he smoothly works the length of his scaled body underneath him in loose, overlapping coils. Like a sleeping boa in a tree branch, except atop the pile of winding scales sits a beautiful man with a rippling stomach and a generously proportioned chest and a face as eye-catching as the rest of him.

Keith stuffs the rest of his egg into his mouth and chews it down quickly, his palms clammy as he rubs them up and down his jean-clad thighs. “I missed seeing you,” he says around a half-chewed mouthful. “Didn’t think you’d start hiding from me after princess-carrying me ten miles.”

Shiro’s eyebrows draw inward. After a thoughtful silence, he gives Keith a halting answer. “You left once. I didn’t want to frighten you into staying gone.”

“With my mom. To see a doctor,” Keith says, recalling that first morning after taking a nosedive down the hillside. He taps his cheek, drawing Shiro’s eye to the the discolored strip of mostly-healed skin that stretches up from his jaw. It’ll never quite fade, probably— especially if Keith continues to forget to apply the medicated balm he’s supposed to.

Shiro looks away as he processes that. As if with a mind of its own, the end of his tail curls and uncurls around a leg of the coffee table. “I figured, but… I’m used to humans fleeing in terror at the sight of me. I was still waiting for it to happen with you. Worried I’d speed it along, even.”

“No, I’m good,” Keith says, shaking his head. “Sorry I freaked out at first. That was blind panic. But I know you better now. Not as well as I’d like,” he says with a little smile and a toss of his head, “but you looked out for me, remember? We saved each other.”

“It’s been a long time since I could talk to anyone. I didn’t really know how to approach you without… freaking you out,” Shiro says, smiling as he tries out Keith’s phrasing.

“Well, you did it tonight,” Keith encourages. Through the window, he can see the very first twinkling beginnings of daylight. Belatedly, he realizes he just pulled an all-nighter; more surprisingly, he doesn’t much mind. “And I’m a pretty good listener.”

 


 

From then on, Shiro isn’t shy about turning up on his doorstep. He brings his usual gifts— edible flowers, fresh-caught fish from the nearest canyon creek, eggs and desert hares— at a more decent hour, presenting them to Keith in person. And from there, a routine takes root and grows fast.

It starts with breakfast together. Shiro wolfs down oversized portions while Keith charts out the plots he needs to visit for the day, and from there they set out. They ford creeks together— Keith nimbly hopping from stone to stone as Shiro slithers through, his wet scales gleaming bright— and venture up rocky formations to watch the sunset from new heights. Shiro takes him on detours to hidden places throughout the desert, charming as he reveals cramped caverns with mineral-striped walls and tiny, clear springs flush with life. And smaller snakes slither frantically out of the naga’s path wherever he goes, sparing Keith any worries about rattlers hidden in the rocks.

Shiro ends up being the perfect partner for field work, eager and interested in everything Keith does. What’s more, he can read things off the land that Keith would never guess possible— with a flick of his tongue, the naga can taste distant fires and animal scents through the air. He has a knack for estimating the ages of Gambel oaks before they’re even cored for tree-ring samples, and has already casually observed much of the same phenomena Keith hopes to rigorously record.

And in the course of their time spent together, Shiro feeds his curiosity, too.

He explains that naga thrive underground, for the most part. That he’s considered large even by his kind’s standards. He answers dozens of questions about his anatomy— no to unhinging his jaw, yes to shedding his skin, and an assurance that he isn’t venomous in the slightest. And while Keith carefully skirts around asking him about the unusual appearance of his right arm, Shiro tells him its origin anyway: the curse of a witch, grown from a charred sliver of ironwood and grafted onto his body as one of her experiments.

Keith’s jaw clenches tight at the retelling, fingers digging uselessly into the sand under him. But his secondhand fury is assuaged by Shiro’s dreamy talk of how he’d always wanted to live on the surface instead, to see the stars and sky and feel the wind on his scales. He’d picked up a few passable human languages while hovering on the outskirts of their civilizations. He’s better at reading. Terrible at writing. So-so at drawing, by his own judgment.

Shiro likes physics, based on the few books he’s stumbled across or outright stolen. He even built his own telescope to watch the stars. He likes first snows and weeping willows and meteor showers. He likes exploring new places. Likes having someone to tell all of this to.

Keith learns that Shiro’s most recent— and most isolated— home yet had been in a comfortable cavern miles northwest of here. The storm that fateful night had caught him off-guard, a sudden deluge of water sweeping down into his tunnels as the canyon flooded. He’d been dragged out in the rush, fighting the floodwaters to the point of exhaustion, and deposited downstream far worse for the wear.

And that was when Keith showed up.

Shiro smiles when he talks about that part— waking to find himself cleaned and bandaged, shaded by a plaid shirt stretched between four sticks jammed in the riverbank. Rolling over and spotting Keith napping on a nearby rock, his lap holding a dozen sketches of a sleeping Shiro.

Keith winds up talking about himself, too, endlessly amused at the way Shiro attentively hangs on every word of his unremarkable history. He tells the naga about the hoverbike he fixed up as a teenager and the two months he spent laid up with a broken leg after diving it off a cliff. Keith shows him the tattoos he designed for himself— a broadsword along his inner arm and a constellation on his nape, under the dense fall of his hair— and flips through pages of potential ideas for another. While they study the restoration treatments and regrowth patterns of forests hit by wildfire, Keith even brings up his father and his firefighting.

He talks til he’s hoarse some days, his vocal cords unused to such heavy use. He didn’t even talk this much in college, despite Lance and Pidge constantly egging him on.

Just as often, Keith doesn’t feel the need to say anything at all. There’s no pressure to come up with something to fill the air with Shiro when they watch the sunrise or have a picnic in the shadow of a looming butte. In fact, some of Keith’s most entertaining memories come from lounging on stony outcroppings with his shades on, legs swinging as he watches Shiro hunt for critters and catch creek fish to swallow whole.

They’re back to the cottage by midafternoon, usually. Keith always invites Shiro to stay for dinner, and Shiro always accepts.

While the naga sits out on the porch and washes the red dust from his dulled scales, Keith starts cooking. Somewhere along the way, he’d inquired about Shiro’s eating habits and discovered he was happily omnivorous; after a few experimental pizza rolls and poptarts, they both learned that Shiro had a passionate love of processed food.

Maybe not the greatest thing to introduce the naga to, but Keith doesn’t have the heart to deny him sour worms and cheese-flavored product.

At the moment, Keith works on recreating his dad’s famous mac and cheese, a family recipe that skimps on absolutely nothing, for Shiro to try. He crouches in front of the oven and watches the cheese bubble and brown, babying the dish every step of the way. Maybe it’s silly how much he wants Shiro to like it, how much he wants to hear his wonder and praise at that first bite, but Keith is a simple man with simple needs.

The mission is a resounding success. Keith curls on the couch with his bowl of mac and cheese, the tiniest bit smug as Shiro wolfs down the lion’s share and then licks his plate clean of every remnant of cheese or noodle.

“Everything you make is so much better than what I’m used to,” Shiro compliments. With a contented smile, he stretches out across the rug a few feet from Keith. The length of his tail winds around the furniture and along the wall, sluggishly moving a few inches as Shiro gets comfortable. “This is even better than the pizza rolls. This is my new favorite thing.”

“Mac and cheese?” Keith asks, grinning. “I’ll make it more often, then.”

“I’d love that.” A low, purring hiss reverberates through the naga as he closes his eyes and smooths a hand down his belly, well-fed and well-pleased.

And Keith stares. His dark eyes follow the gentle scrape of claws over Shiro’s pale, scar-marked skin and the sparse scales that trail up under his navel. He watches the rippling motion that works down Shiro’s length, his cosmically dark scales almost undulating as the dense muscle underneath contracts. A thick coil of tail lays near enough for Keith to count the individual scales, each one like a polished obsidian pebble. Near enough to touch—

He does it without thinking, his slender hand splayed over reptilian skin. Shiro is dry under his sweaty palm; warm, although a few degrees cooler than Keith himself. Beneath the scales, powerful muscle flexes. Keith feels the movement of it under his fingers and finds it just as mesmerizing as he’d imagined.

“Sorry,” he whispers a second later, flashing Shiro an apologetic glance. His hand withdraws slow and reluctant, his fingers curling tight. “Should’ve asked.”

“I don’t mind.” Shiro’s smile is slow and placid, the points of fangs gently bared. “Feel free to feel.”

It’s an offer Keith can’t refuse. He slides his palm down the firm swell of Shiro’s tail, marvelling at the sinuous wave that runs down through it. An intrusive desire slips in and paints itself across his mind’s eye: wrapping his legs around Shiro and pressing flush against him, feeling all that strength up close. Or better still, Shiro coiling around him, pressing into every inch of his body, squeezing Keith just right—

“Getting dark out,” Shiro sighs, already drawing his tail toward him, out from under the coffee table and around the couch. “I’d better go. Let you get some work done.”

Keith gently grasps the very end of Shiro’s tail as it slowly slips through his loose fist. The naga has a point— there’s no way Keith can focus on inputting the day’s data with Shiro sitting so close, welcome and waiting to be touched. “Yeah. I’ll see you tomorrow?”

He’s tempted to ask Shiro to stay. He always is. But the worry of encroaching on what little time Shiro has reserved for himself is a solid deterrent. They spend nearly all their waking hours together and it doesn’t seem fair to ask for even more. Naga lead solitary lives, and Shiro’s spent most of his steadfastly independent; if these are his few boundaries, Keith’s not about to cross them.

“Bright and early,” Shiro promises. “I’ll bring… trout?” he offers, head tilted like he’s waiting for Keith’s input.

“Love breakfast trout,” he answers as he walks Shiro to the door, hands jammed into the pockets of his sweatpants. It’s almost second nature now, the way Keith side-steps slithering sections of tail as he crosses the room. He smiles to himself and adds, “I’ll fry ‘em with some bacon,” knowing the suggestion will whet Shiro’s appetite for sure.

And there’s definitely a hungry gleam in the naga’s inhuman eyes as he goes, casting more than one glance back over his shoulder at Keith.

 


 

Keith marks the passing days in the careful observation reports he files for his job, tracking weather trends and the state of the local flora and fauna all through winter. Notably, he does neglect to mention sightings of a certain predator who sits atop the local food chain— but other than that, Keith considers himself very thorough.

They’re halfway through February when Keith hears the distant rumble of thunder as he readies for bed. He checks the weather, surprised at how quickly the out-of-season storm must’ve coalesced, and finds it’s a monster— fast-moving and liable to spill hail and drenching rain across the arid plains, possibly whisking up new floods. Keith gets out the candles and oil lamps, just in case, and is awfully glad he happened to store his hoverbike in the shed after his earlier ride into town.

His worries all direct back to Shiro, who is somewhere out in the nighttime wilds, all the stars blotted out by roiling storm clouds. And as the wind begins to claw at the window shutters and the rain starts beating against the roof in a deafening cascade, Keith crosses his arms tight and stares out a window and into the lightning-stricken dark, wishing he knew where to begin to look for him.

In the lingering wake of a low peal of thunder, there’s a sudden rap at the door. Keith almost takes it for windblown debris banging at the side of the house until it comes again, faster and more insistent.

Heart in his throat, Keith jolts into action, undoing the locks and throwing the door open. Wind and rain buffet around him, pushing in past the massive and dark form looming on the threshold.

“Shiro!” Keith cries at the sight of him— drenched and wide-eyed, his hair a wet curtain clinging to his skin, the storm breathing down the naga’s neck. “Shiro, come in!”

It’s the first time Shiro’s been in his house this late. And it’s the first time Keith’s seen him like this: movements stiff and panicked rather than their usual sinuous ease; quick to bunch his tail and recoil, even from his friend; shivering as he wrings his tail in little loops, trying to get warm.

“Sorry,” Shiro whispers as he curls and shrinks in the middle of Keith’s living room, a puddle growing underneath him.

“Shiro… you don’t have to apologize. Here, let me help.” Keith hurriedly brings out every towel he owns, dumping the pile onto the nearby kitchen table.

He throws the nicest, plushest one over the naga’s shoulders and beckons him to lean down. Keith delicately dabs the towel across Shiro’s face and then ruffles it through his long, soaked hair, wringing out as much dripping rain as he can. He can comb out the tangles later— maybe set it in a braid to keep it neat and out of the way. Keith’s fingers briefly card through the damp strands as he tucks a bone-white lock behind Shiro’s slightly pointed ear.

And then Keith grabs a dry towel and starts lower…

Standing eye level with Shiro’s dripping, shivering chest is its own kind of mixed blessing. He aches to feel his way up the naga’s torso, traversing its dips and swells. He wants to draw Shiro close and warm him with his own body, nevermind if he’s soaked in the process.

But he has a mission, so Keith resolutely soldiers on. With a set jaw and an eye determined not to wander, he wraps a towel around Shiro and rubs him dry. His hands guide the cheap cloth over every inch of skin and scale— under the curves of powerfully set pectorals and down the dip of his belly, around the thick column of his tail. To finish, he toes the damp towels across the floor to soak up the remaining rainwater and calls it a job well done.

“Thank you,” Shiro murmurs, still prone to bouts of shivers. He smiles at Keith, but the next rumble of thunder has his narrow-slitted eyes darting to the door, faint lines of worried tension writ around them.

“Do you want tea or cocoa?” Keith asks next, smiling as Shiro instantly perks at the sweet distraction.

“Cocoa. Hot.”

“Obviously,” he emphatically agrees, happy to hear the whisper of hard scales across the floorboards as Shiro follows behind him.

The two of them crowd the tiny kitchen, even with most of Shiro’s length still sprawled across the living room. Keith likes having Shiro this close, though, the naga bent over his shoulder to watch as he makes instant hot cocoa. And Shiro seems more at ease once he’s cupping a warm mug in both hands, smiling small at Keith over a towering crown of melted marshmallows as he sips.

“You okay?” Keith asks as he leans his hip against the counter.

“Better now,” Shiro answers with a small sigh. His tongue— long and black-tipped but not forked, as Keith had learned with great surprise— darts out to lick a stripe of marshmallow from his upper lip. Across the room, Keith can see the intermittent lashing of his tail, restless with lingering anxiety. “I was already curled up for the night when I heard it, and— i-it’s like that night.”

Keith can guess exactly which one Shiro means. He gives the naga a sympathetic pat along his forearm and hopes his dismal efforts at comfort aren’t off-putting.

“As soon as I felt the water start running down into my nest, I had to get out. It felt like I was drowning again,” Shiro murmurs, a clawed hand running absently up and down his throat. “I didn’t know where else to go. Sorry I woke you, Keith”

“Wasn’t sleeping,” Keith croaks. “And I’m glad you came. As soon as I saw the storm, I worried about you, Shiro... You’re welcome here anytime, day or night. I should’ve said so sooner.”

The naga’s tentative smile takes root and flourishes, shy and warm as he stares down into his drink. “I wouldn’t want to intrude on you more than I already do. I think I tend to distract you from your work.”

It’s true, though not Shiro’s fault in the slightest. “I still get everything done that I need to,” Keith shrugs. “Don’t worry about that. You’re always going to be my priority over measuring dead biomass.”

Shiro’s smile is tender and teasing at once. He lays a dark, clawed hand over his heart. “Aw, really?”

“Really. You know how much I love measuring the ecological effects of various fire treatments, but it’s always infinitely better with you around to talk to.”

“I enjoy your company, too.” Grey eyes hold his stare for a solid few seconds, til a crack of nearby lightning and the rumble of thunder around them breaks Shiro’s soft concentration. Tension tightens his jaw; his spine sits rigid, even as the bulk of his tail shifts with unease. As if hunting for something to occupy his attention, the naga turns to the counter and starts picking through a stack of plastic containers. “What are these?”

“Oh.” Keith stares at the pile of store-bought cookies, cupcakes, and boxed chocolate, all of them covered in red and pink hearts. “Uh, Valentine’s Day was yesterday, so I got all of this on sale when I was in town. They mark the price down once the holiday passes. Cheap treats.”

“Huh. What’s with these?” A dark claw traces the shape of a heart on a box of chocolates, then taps at the lid of cupcakes decorated with heart-shaped sprinkles.

Keith shrugs and sips his own cocoa. “Valentine’s Day is all about love, so people put hearts on everything.”

“Doesn’t look like any heart I’ve ever seen,” Shiro says, squinting down at the cutesy decoration, “and I’ve eaten enough of them to know.”

Keith snorts a brief laugh and pops the noisy plastic cupcake container open, offering Shiro one of the discount treats. He hides his grin behind his hand as he watches the naga warily examine the bright pink frosting before giving it a tentative, testing lick. And once Shiro realizes it’s mostly sugar, he dives in with enthusiasm.

They try the soft-baked sugar cookies next. Then Keith introduces Shiro to chocolate-covered cherries and strawberry-flavored Peeps, tossing them high into the air for Shiro to catch in his mouth. There isn’t one thing in the entire haul that the naga dislikes, and as he carefully licks his clawed fingers clean, Shiro announces that he’s rather fond of Valentine’s Day.

“Maybe next year we can do something to celebrate it properly,” Keith says without thinking. The implication settles in a moment after, and his cheeks go hot with the realization that he means every bit of it. He wants nothing more than to spend another year here with Shiro as his constant companion— and maybe more than that, too.

“I’d like that,” Shiro immediately agrees, still hovering within arm’s reach of Keith at all times. The rainfall remains deafening around them, the thunder close enough to make the cottage walls tremble. He pauses each time, breath held, as if waiting for something worse to happen.

Keith hates seeing Shiro flinch as the wind blows sheets of rain into the side of the house, beating on the shutters and glass like it’s trying to pound its way through. Every little sign of the naga’s discomfort has Keith racking his mind for ways to help him unwind. The cocoa and Valentine’s treats helped, but only fleetingly.

Keith casts a bleak look at the futon and coffee table, ideas bouncing in circles round his skull. They could play dominoes or card games til the worst of the weather passes— or so he thinks until a glance at the radar shows the storming may last hours more. Maybe they ought to watch one of the four DVDs that Keith owns. And they’ll need to get some sleep sometime…

There are spare linens in the hall closet. He can make the futon comfortable enough for Shiro to sleep on, though eighty-percent of him would have to remain spooled on the floor. It seems like a lackluster offer to make, though. Keith doubts the naga would get a lick of rest out here so long as the storm is rolling through, and he has no intentions of leaving Shiro to deal with that alone.

Instead, he asks, “Would you… wanna come stay in my room?”

Shiro’s head swivels toward him. “Y-yeah. Yes.”

“It’s a little messy,” Keith warns, bounding ahead to hastily grab clothes off of the floor and toss them into his laundry basket.

Shiro squeezes through the doorway after him, the length of his serpentine body piling up as every inch of him eagerly slithers inside. “Keith, it’s perfect.”

The small room is dominated by his bed, which consists of just a queen-sized mattress stacked on a boxspring. It had come free by way of one of his uncles and while Keith had always privately considered it needlessly large for just one person, he now wishes it were even bigger.

“You can lie here with me, if you want,” he offers as he flops down and scoots over against the far wall, trying to be accomodating of the naga’s size. When Shiro lingers in place, he gives the quilt-covered bed an inviting pat.

Shiro slides his upper body up the bed, stretching out beside him. A swath of his thick tail drapes across the foot of the bed before spilling off the edge, the rest of his length spooling on the bedroom floor. “Comfortable.”

“Yeah, it’s nice.” Keith rolls over and plugs in the star-shaped string lights hung along the walls. Their glow is faint, dwarfed by the large bulbs in the ceiling fan’s light fixture. “Can you get the lights for me?”

Across the room, the thin tip of Shiro’s tail edges up the wall and swipes at the switch. It cuts the bright overhead light and leaves them in the dimmer glow of the string lights, punctuated only by the occasional flashes of lightning that peek through the blinds. Combined with the white noise of the rain outside, the darkened bedroom feels hushed. Intimate. Kind of cozy, too. At the moment, even the distant thunder doesn’t seem to bother Shiro, who is instead tactilely examining the quilt underneath them.

And now that Keith has him here, so close and so soft under the imitation starlight, he has only one thing on his mind.

“Can I touch you?”

“You’ve touched me plenty of times,” Shiro answers, but he smiles and takes Keith’s hesitantly outstretched hand, guiding it closer.

He has. Never like this, though— so direct and with such a spark bouncing back and forth between them. Keith feels the slow, powerful beat of Shiro’s heart underneath warm skin and a considerable layer of muscle. His touch runs lower, down the sculpted slope of the naga’s belly, lingering where scales begin to pepper across his hips, and then lower still. He palms over layered black scales, each like a perfect and polished shard of onyx, and gives the sleek muscle under his palm a gentle squeeze.

Shiro is solid and soft at once. Movement ripples all the way down his tail, reptilian skin shimmering in the low light. His hips roll as Keith’s hand gingerly slips over a column of scales along his front; intrigued, Keith runs back and forth over the same sensitive spot, teasing Shiro til he writhes.

“Does this make you feel good?” he asks, a note of surprise in his voice as he lightly scratches his nails over the larger, longer scales across Shiro’s belly.

“Very,” Shiro groans out. He rocks side to side, shoulders settling deeper into the mattress as his tail flexes and his hips rise up to meet Keith’s touch. “Is it the same for you?”

Keith’s gaze follows a curled hand as it trails down his chest, knuckles brushing over the loose drape of his sweatshirt and the tented stretch of his plaid pajama pants. He groans as the backs of Shiro’s large fingers brushes back and forth against the bulge of his hardening cock.

“You like that,” the naga observes, vindicated, pressing more insistently.

Keith muffles his moan against Shiro’s shoulder, burying his face into scarred skin and dense muscle. He can feel the soft shake of Shiro’s laughter. “I do! Fuck, I do.”

As Keith feels the first inquisitive brush of claws along the waistband of his pajama pants, he reaches down to help Shiro along. With a hooked thumb and a little wriggle of his hips, the cozy flannel slips down a few inches. The flushed head of his cock peeks out, earning a sound of pleasant surprise from Shiro.

Keith follows Shiro’s eyes, blushing all the way down his chest as the naga flat-out purrs at the sight of him. Those slitted pupils go wide, the silver-grey of his irises clouded dark with desire.

“It’s pretty,” Shiro murmurs. He trails the back of a finger up the underside of Keith’s dick, just light enough to tease. “Just like the rest of you,” he adds in a low, gravelly tone, stare lifting to meet Keith’s.

He can only gape for a moment, mouth working wordlessly as the heat under his skin deepens. Something about the way Shiro says it— paired with the look in his dark, smokey grey eyes— paralyzes Keith as sure as venom can, a tingling fever already slipping through his veins.

“You too, Shiro. I could stare at you for hours. Draw you a thousand times,” Keith finally manages to say. He presses his palm firmly against the scales that got Shiro so bothered before. “So, do you have, uh… I mean, is it different for naga? In terms of sex?”

Keith doesn’t know enough about snake anatomy to guess what kind of genitalia Shiro might have or where it’d even be. He glances further down the length of black tail that’s draped over his bed and haphazardly woven throughout the room, wondering.

“A little different,” Shiro says, shifting on the mattress. His dark, large-clawed hand slides down beside Keith’s, fingerpads stroking along a column of his sensitive scales. “But still compatible, I think. I’ll let you decide.”

A slivered opening between Shiro’s scales widens as a dark, shiny-wet appendage slowly emerges. Clawed fingers splayed on either side help spread his vent as a second tip follows the first, emerging just as gradually.

Keith can’t help but stare. Shiro has two cocks. Two. Fully extended, they’re long and gracefully tapered, glistening with the sheen of something slick. Their smoke-black tips fade to a creamy, pearly white that stands in stark and lovely contrast to the surrounding scales. “S-Shiro, I— wow.”

Shiro loops his hand around them both and gives them a gentle pull from thick base to slender tip. Their slippery coating gathers along his fingers and drips down onto his body. Keith licks his lips as Shiro wipes his messy hand up his own abdomen, leaving a slick and shining trail over the defined muscle.

“You can touch them too, if you want,” Shiro shyly offers, his head tilted in Keith’s direction.

He does. Desperately. The slit Shiro’s cocks emerged from is generously coated with that same sticky lubricant; it clings to Keith’s hand as he palms over it and the twin dicks, gently squeezing his way upward. One alone is longer and thicker around than Keith’s cock, currently hard and heavy with need where it brushes against the bedspread. Held together, they’re too much to fit his hand all the way around.

Keith gives Shiro a few long strokes, biting into the cushion of his bottom lip as the motion coaxes pleased, rattling noises out of the naga. Eager and curious and aiming to please, he bends down closer to Shiro’s hips and pulls the slender head of one cock into his mouth.

A hand buries itself in his hair, claws tender against his scalp, and Shiro makes a sound that starts as a hiss and melts into a drawn moan. Keith smiles before edging a little further down, enjoying the slight tug at the roots of his hair. In his mouth, Shiro tastes of salt and something woodsy, almost like juniper berries; the slippery coating on his cock reminds Keith of aloe, clear and sticky and stringy whenever he pulls away.

It’s not bad, though. Not by any measure. Shiro’s cock is sleek and smooth and unexpectedly pliable, the tip wriggling around the swirl of his tongue. And if one was fun, then two is better— Keith angles his head and guides Shiro’s other dick into his mouth, opening wide so that it might fit. His fist curls best as it can around the both of them at the base, lazily pumping while he slides his mouth down until his lips are stretched around the pair.

Over his own panted breaths and the wet noises of working his mouth around Shiro’s cocks— and the steady beat of the rain outside— Keith can hear breathy moans and the swishing of a scaled tail across the floor of his bedroom. The hand knotted in his hair slowly works down to cup along his nape, a large thumb running up and down the upper vertebrae of his spine. Keith’s cock twitches at the casual strength in that hand as it slides up his neck, sensitive cockhead brushing against the quilt already sticky with his precum.

Keith pulls off with a wet noise and a few clingy threads of Shiro’s slickness. As he wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, he surveys the toll he’s taken on Shiro.

The naga’s head is thrown back over the pillow, long hair spread around him, strands sticking to his sweat-dampened skin. Excitement has a pretty blush across his cheeks and down his throat, over his ample chest. He’s the most beautiful thing Keith’s ever seen.

And there’s no reason not to be honest with him. “I want you inside me.”

Shiro immediately groans, head winding back into the pillow a little deeper, his throat bared so pretty that Keith is tempted to ring it in shallow bites and hickeys. “Please,” he rumbles, skimming his large hand under Keith’s shirt and up his side. “I want to be with you more than anything, Keith. For so long now.”

Keith sighs as Shiro reaches up to tuck a piece of unruly hair behind his ear. He nods his head into the touch, loving the feel of Shiro’s palm on his scarred cheek. “Yeah, same. You… you’re really special, Shiro.”

Shiro mumbles off some weak denial, his cheeks flushed dark as he stammers around his words and turns it into a compliment of Keith instead— so unlike any human he’s ever met, so determined to care, so eager to try and understand.

Kissing him feels every kind of natural. Shiro’s lips are still faintly sticky from melted marshmallows; his glossy fangs prove an irresistible temptation for Keith, who feels them out with the tip of his tongue, marvelling at their length and wicked points. Every taste of him just makes Keith hungrier for more, and there are sparks low in his belly when Shiro responds in kind— kissing back with an appetite that matches Keith’s measure for measure, a clawed hand buried in Keith’s messy hair to hold him close.

With fingers still slick from stroking Shiro, Keith reaches down and starts opening himself up. It’s a hurried job, his eagerness getting the better of him. Keith justifies it with a measure of confidence that the long taper of Shiro’s cocks will make him easier to take; he can finish stretching himself out around the the stout base of Shiro’s length.

Urgently and with no shortage of flailing limbs, Keith kicks the rest of the way out of his pajama bottoms and promptly throws a leg over Shiro, straddling him. Without pause, he grabs the back of his sweatshirt and tugs it over his head. Shiro, of course, has always been bare nude, and now Keith’s happy to match.

Shiro wraps a clawed hand around his thigh, grip pressing tenderly into his flesh. The slick heat of his twin lengths brushes insistently along the curve of Keith’s ass, tips occasionally touching against his lower back as he shifts.

“Keith, are you sure you can—” With a helpless little sigh, the naga holds up his hands and indicates Keith’s much smaller, narrower frame.

With the absolute surety born of an iron will and steely determination, Keith answers, “Yes.”

He reaches behind himself and wraps his hand around one tapered shaft, angling its slick, slender tip til it presses against his entrance— and then just past it, the eager flexing and twitching of Shiro’s cock helping it nudge into him. Keith eases back inchingly slow, the blunt nails of the hand he has braced on Shiro’s chest scraping over his skin as they curl. He rocks back and forth at every hitch of resistance, gently working Shiro in deeper; all the while, Shiro’s other dick rubs against the backs of his thighs and bumps against his spread cheeks, leaving dabs of that slick coating wherever it touches.

Shiro’s cock sits full inside him, heavy and twitching. Large hands on either side of his hips keep him steady. And, with his forehead already dampening with sweat and his hair clinging to his nape, Keith tenses his thighs and rises up halfway off of Shiro’s length before dropping back down.

Keith grunts softly as he quickens the pace, grinding his hips with every downward thrust. He almost bounces atop Shiro’s scaly hips, legs spread wide over the thickness of his snakelike body. The temptation to wrap a hand around his cock is unimaginably strong, but Keith pinches his lower lip between his teeth and steadfastly resists. He wants to draw every moment of this out to its absolute fullest, and already he feels primed like a powderkeg, liable to burst at the smallest spark.

Keith’s always considered himself quiet, his neediest sounds confined to harsh breaths and little sounds of exertion. Shiro is… the opposite of that.

“Keith, Keith, ah,” the naga murmurs, the name part of an unceasing litany of pleading and praise. Shiro’s broad hand slides up to cup along Keith’s ribs, a clawed thumb rubbing across his nipple and up the shallow curves of his lightly muscled chest. There’s a hint of wonder in how Shiro explores his heat-flushed, sweat-slick body; lust-tinged awe as he traces the contours of the lithe form riding him hard. “Keith! You’re so good, Keith. Better than— ah— dreams.”

“You dream about me?” he asks, a sly grin taking hold. Keith slows a fraction, more focused on Shiro’s response than on the ache and pleasure rolling through his belly and twitching through his dick.

Shiro’s low moan trails into a hiss as Keith grinds down into him, chasing everything that feels good. His claws trail raised, reddened lines where they drag over Keith’s outer thighs and down his chest. “All the time, Keith,” he pants. “But never as good as this.”

The new blush that crawls across Keith’s skin leaves the warm glow of kindled confidence in its wake. Desire to surpass every one of Shiro’s expectations deepens the yawning hunger that sits in Keith’s core like a black hole, continually grasping for more. The curved length of that glossy second cock still brushes against him with every movement, no doubt languishing for lack of attention.

Swept up in the excitement of fucking himself on just one of Shiro’s slick, pretty dicks, Keith had halfway forgotten any ambitions of wringing both dry on their first night together.

“Just wait til I’m taking both,” Keith says, so husky it’s nearly a growl. His hips continue to roll as he straightens up, thighs squeezing tight around Shiro as he straightens up.

“Keith—” Shiro stops short, and for a moment Keith fears he’ll make a doubtful protest and insist they wait. But the naga’s lip curls with a dreamy, lopsided grin that shows off the full length of one fangish canine; the heated flush across his cheeks melts his expression into something like blissful admiration. “I believe in you.”

Keith can’t not smile at that face, plastered with adoration and anticipation. Blindly, he reaches back and grasps for Shiro’s other dick; it pulses in his hand, sensitive after so long sitting neglected, its surface so slick that Keith has a hard time keeping hold. Under him, Shiro’s long body gives a sinuous little roll, his scaled hips jerking up.

Keith licks his lips as the movement nudges the length already lodged inside of him a little deeper. It’s a good feeling, full enough to make Keith feel punch-drunk and feverish— but it could be more.

He leans forward and pulls off of Shiro’s cock slow, dipping in low to meet Shiro’s mouth in a greedy kiss. With the naga softly mewling against his lips and clawed hands grasping at his hips, Keith stops with just an inch or two still inside of him.

He tries to guide the second one in alongside the first, pressing the sleek head against the relatively accommodating stretch of his hole, but it’s tricky going. Shiro’s twin cocks are slippery, against each other and against Keith’s own skin, and squeezing them both in is more of a struggle than he’d anticipated.

Keith’s frustration mounts each time the head of the second cock slips shy of sliding home, instead skidding up the cleft of his ass or along the back of his thigh. He grunts, weight shifting across Shiro’s middle as his thighs start to tremble, and tries again.

“I can help,” Shiro murmurs against his cheekbone, nipping light at the little juncture of his ear.

The naga’s larger, fiercer arm hooks around behind him to take hold of his own troublesome lengths. All Keith can feel is the firm press of that second cockhead against him, its slight wriggle as Shiro raises his serpentine hips a fraction, and—

Keith pushes his back into a taut curve as the second dick slowly fills him, too. It’s a whole new stretch to warm to— a weak burn that floods into the depths of his belly. It makes Keith’s strong, sinewy arms tremble. It keeps him breathless, panting, as if the full measure of Shiro’s sex is enough to compress everything else inside of him and force the air from his lungs.

Shiro purrs under him, his hands clasped tight around the slimness of Keith’s waist. There’s considerable restraint in how he rolls his hips up against the smaller man, gently fucking into him by slivered increments of an inch. It’s a slow, languid pace matched with long kisses and the hungry slip of a twining tongue across Keith’s skin. Shiro works him open a little more with each tiny thrust, edging ever deeper.

Keith lets out a drawn, almost disbelieving moan as Shiro starts delivering actual strokes, the heft of his two dicks dragging through his insides like a wet heat turned given mass and form. With his chin dropped to his chest, Keith can even see the faintest little bulge in his belly— an impression left as Shiro’s cocks plunge in deep before withdrawing just as smoothly. The stretched sensation never vanishes. The immense and heavy fullness sitting inside of him remains. But it’s still on the comfortable side of being spread and impaled by a monster cock, however overwhelmed his keyed-up nerves are, and Keith tosses his head back and embraces it.

He never gets back to the quick bounce he’d achieved with just one dick up his ass, but that’s alright. Keith finds he likes the pace Shiro’s set— patient and purposeful, every stroke meant to drive deep. A slower build but just as powerful.

There’s a crash and a clatter on the other side of the room, enough to tear at Keith’s concentration for a fleeting second. He huffs the weakest, breathiest laugh when he sees it’s just Shiro’s tail writhing and flicking wildly in excitement, knocking over a lamp and sending the hamper careening.

Keith turns back to Shiro— who watches him with a borderline snarl, fangs bared, his slitted pupils so wide they nearly seem round— and slams his hips down hard, til he and Shiro are pressed flush together, every inch of the naga that his body can accept rooted deep inside Keith.

If Keith is this close— and he is, a low throb inside of him just waiting to be set loose— then Shiro must be skirting along the same precipice. All it would take is a touch, the lightest graze across the flushed head of his cock to set him off.

Shiro bucks into him with enough force to clap Keith’s skin against his scales, a mess of sticky strands already stretching between them. His hands ring Keith’s slim hips, holding him steady for every punctuated thrust. A ragged sound hangs in the back of his throat, dithering between moan and guttural hiss, and Keith can tell he’s right on the verge.

He grips Shiro’s wrist and digs his nails in, wanting those clawed hands to stay wrapped around him tight. Semi-delirious, he breathes out encouragement and begs the naga to leave him full.

Keith feels the low throb against his walls as Shiro buries himself in deep and then holds, his steady rhythm suddenly breaking down. It’s a warm surge that sticks along his insides. Serpentine hips jerk against him as his cocks continue pump generous spurts of come, the excess running out in viscous trails that smear along Keith’s thighs and drip down his balls.

Keith could maybe get off on that alone— the copious amount of Shiro’s seed currently in him, the weight of it sitting heavy against his prostate, the pure gratification of having wrung so much out of his partner— but he’s swiftly jerked over the edge before he can find out. His cock is engulfed in a grip that’s warm, firm, wonderful. Paired with the sensations already stoked high inside of him, it only takes a squeeze to completely undo him, feeling the way gunpowder must from the barest kiss of a flame. Such a small gesture, but from it Keith is spilling pearly stripes of his own come all across Shiro’s belly, his vision blurring as he labors to catch breath he hadn’t even realized had gotten away from him.

Keith glances down and sees the thin tip of Shiro’s tail wrapped around his cock, the coils rippling as they flex around him in a motion meant to milk every drop. He likes the sight of it almost as much as he appreciates the feel.

A slow collapse follows. Shiro helps gently bear him down to the bed as Keith’s bones turn to warm jelly and a satisfied stupor begins to fog his thoughts. It feels natural to stretch out against the naga’s side, cheek pressed to his chest, sweaty and sticky but somehow not even the slightest bit off-put by the mess.

As Shiro tugs the covers over him, all Keith can think of is how much laundry he’ll have to do come morning, once the rains have passed. But he imagines Shiro will help him hang it from the clothesline strung outside when the time comes; the thought has him smiling against damp, scar-laced skin.

“I like you stayin’ the night,” Keith mumbles, nosing into Shiro’s warmth as his lips move over the pillowy fullness of his chest.

“I do, too,” Shiro answers, the tips of sharp claws running back and forth along the curve of Keith’s spine.

“Maybe we should make a habit of it.”

Shiro makes a low, interested sound. “You don’t think I take up too much of your bed?” he asks, almost teasing.

“Nope,” Keith says, the word getting out just ahead of a jaw-popping yawn. He throws an arm across Shiro and snuggles closer. “You fit just right.”

Keith feels the brush of scales around his ankle and glances down the bed to see telltale movement under the quilt. He can only surmise it’s the end of Shiro’s tail as thin coils begin to wind all the way up his leg, holding him through the dying afterglow. Its nimble tip fondly strokes along his inner thigh before finally settling down.

Keith relaxes a little deeper in the embrace of the naga twined around him, the two of them tangled together under the covers. Shiro’s chest rises and falls steadily under his cheek, breaths calm and slow despite the continued growls of thunder. Keith smiles to himself, happy to have worn out Shiro to a peaceful, satisfied exhaustion.

Something about the moment feels safe and untouchable, the two of them curled together in such a way they’d be a task to part. Keith holds onto that thought as he follows Shiro into warm and well-earned slumber, already excited to wake up tangled in each other’s arms.