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The pistol spins out of Shiro’s hand, landing out of reach on the forest floor. He’s cornered and the demon knows it. It’s mouth lifts into a parody of a smile. Shiro scrambles towards the pistol but it’s difficult when he’s bleeding from at least three different places, the most pressing wound being a nasty slash on his side. He covers it with his hand in a weak attempt to stop himself from bleeding out.

He’s really fucked this time. He got sloppy, complacent and didn’t notice the demon until it was too late. It doesn’t mean he’ll make it easy for the demon to kill him. He still might be able to kill it before that happens and that has to count for something. It’s why he’s here: to hunt down the demons of the forest. He thought he got them all but there was one more lurking, a higher level sloth demon. Fitting that a sloth demon would take its time to show up and kill him.

Despite its nature, it’s fast when it chooses to be, striking Shiro with sharp talons and a wicked spiked tail. The tail is the worst part, knocking Shiro’s weapons out of his hand until he’s left with nothing but himself.

He doesn’t want to activate his right arm. Its powers scare him—especially now that he’s going to die. He doesn’t know what will happen when he does or if the arm will even allow it to happen. Maybe his soul will perish but the arm will power his body turning him into something worse than the creatures he hunts. At least demons, even the lower level animalistic ones, had their own minds.

But that’s all conjecture. He doesn’t know what the witch’s curse will do after his death but he does know the demon will harm innocents if he doesn’t kill it. Demons are violent and cruel, bringers of death and destruction. There’s a village not far from the forest that will be in danger if Shiro doesn’t do his job. He has to stop the demon even if it’s the last thing he ever does.

The sloth demon may be fast but it’s reluctant to act. It’s content to wait for Shiro to bleed out. It’s not a bad strategy. He’s lost the strength to track down his wayward weapons. Soon he won’t be able to move at all and the demon will have what it wants.

Shiro doesn’t have a choice: he wills his right arm into existence.

The demon’s expression turns into something that may be shock or surprise but it never gets to fully make it before Shiro uses the last of his strength to lift himself up and claw clean through its neck, severing its head. Dark red blood spurts and covers the forest and Shiro. The demon’s headless body slumps to the ground.

Shiro collapses onto his knees and deactivates his arm; the empty space left behind is more familiar to him than the cursed red arm the witch gave him. He wants to cover his nose to block out the stench of blood and death but he’s still holding onto his side with his good hand and even that he won’t be able to do for much longer.

He wants to get up. He knows if he lies down he won’t get back up again but maybe that won’t be so bad. Death is an old friend after all—one that has been there since the moment his childhood illness killed him and his foolish parents traded their lives to bring him back. His desire for vengeance drove him into becoming a demon hunter, which has only brought him more encounters with death.

His strength whittles away into nothing. The ground comes at him suddenly and his face falls on blood-soaked leaves—his own or the demon’s, he can’t tell.

He doesn’t close his eyes. Not yet. Twilight is fading into night and the forest is getting dark. If he’s lucky a wolf will eat him before his cursed arm can hurt anyone.

A wolf howls in the forest as if summoned by Shiro’s thoughts. The sound is close. It strikes fear in his heart, which he thinks is a bit funny considering he’s already dying and the wolf might bring him mercy. He can’t help it. He’s still only human and humans have an inexorable instinct to live, even a human like him, entwined with death as he is.

He hears something grow closers. Leaves and twigs crunch underneath them and there’s a sound of something panting—the wolf he presumes. Or wolves. He thinks there are more legs than four.

The something turns him over and curses. He thinks for a second it’s the wolf but his mind helpfully supplies that a wolf wouldn’t bother turning him over and he can’t argue with that logic. He thinks he sees a remarkably unwolf-like figure standing before him but he can’t be sure. His vision swims and the forest is truly dark now. The figure is dark too, at least until a pale face looks down at him. Even as his senses fade he’s able to process that it’s a beautiful face. He’s unsure if it’s a man or woman, demon or angel, but he thinks that it can’t be human, not with that unnatural beauty. Perhaps it was Death Itself here to guide Shiro to the lands beyond.

If it was, he isn’t sure why anyone would fear Death. Death is very pretty. Its eyes are a color Shiro can’t name and they’re framed by dark, thick eyelashes. Its face is delicate and sharp all at once.

Shiro closes his eyes instinctively as Death brings its face closer to Shiro’s.

Death’s lips are soft and warm. Inviting. Shiro kisses back with the last of his strength.

Death takes him at last.

 

♠️

Shiro feels like someone’s tattered childhood toy that has been chewed up by a rambunctious dog and had its pieces patched together by an aging, arthritic, half-blind seamstress. He tries to move his arm and when that doesn’t work he tries a leg but the searing pain dissuades him from that particular course of action. He decides to stay lying down for the time being. It’s a clever plan, truly, but it’s made difficult by his growing thirst. His throat has seen better days. He no longer remembers what it felt like to have saliva in his mouth.

It occurs to him that he has eyes. He opens them and immediately regrets that decision. He groans. He forgot how damn bright the sun was. He opens his eyes slowly, letting them adjust to the light and realizes his assessment was off: it’s not, in fact, daylight. The blinding sun is actually thirty or forty oil lamps. No, three or four. Two? He thinks at least two. Whatever the amount, it’s too much.

His groaning catches the attention of what he hopes is a large dog standing vigil next to him but deep down he knows somehow its the wolf from the forest. He’s not sure what makes him feel so certain of the fact, but perhaps it’s the way its movements sound too loud and too big for even the largest of hounds.

The wolf Shiro wishes was a large dog whines pathetically. There’s a clatter of pots from an adjacent room. He doesn’t hear his mysterious rescuer until he’s standing above him, anxiety and worry carved on his delicately sharp features.

“You're awake,” the man says, relieved, and it is a man—not Death or an angel or a demon, but a flesh and blood man. His voice is gravely and deeper than Shiro expects it to be and with Shiro’s senses working the man’s beauty no longer feels otherworldly. There’s a scar on his face and sweat makes his hair stick to his forehead and surely an angel wouldn’t sweat, let alone have a scar. The stranger’s sweating makes Shiro realize a fire must be going because the room is sweltering. That would explain why it feels like there are forty oil lamps on. The fire must be behind him, where he hasn’t been able to look, the act of turning around beyond his current capabilities.

“Water,” Shiro says, or at least hopes he says as his throat is unusable. The man must understand what he wants as he disappears and returns with water.

“Here.” The man helps Shiro sit up. The process is agonizing.S Shiro feels like he might pass out from the pain and perhaps he does, as one moment he is near tears and the next he is drinking cool water from a dark mug. He doesn’t hold the mug on his own—the stranger does—which is good because Shiro has no interest in lifting anything until his pain levels are closer to being kicked in the balls rather than being awake while his entrails are pulled out of him slowly.

“Careful,” the man says when Shiro starts to choke from drinking too fast. “What’s your name?”

“Shiro,” he manages to croak.

“Well, Shiro, I'm Keith and I promise you can have all the water you want. No need to rush.” There’s something soothing about Keith. Shiro likes the sound of his voice, likes the way his fingertips brush Shiro’s hair out of the way, likes how his eyelashes blink slowly when he catches Shiro staring.

“Where am I?”

Keith sets the mug behind Shiro on a headboard or a shelf maybe. Shiro wouldn’t look to check even if he could. It’s difficult to look away from Keith.

“In my cabin.” He looks at Shiro warily, sizing him up. “It’s at least three days south from the Garrison. The nearest village is a few hours journey to the east. You probably passed by it to enter the forest.”

Shiro doesn’t bother telling Keith he’s not with the Garrison—not anymore. It’s not like it makes much of a difference. The job’s the same—he’s just lacking all of the security and benefits of having the Garrison behind him. Solo demon hunting is significantly more difficult than being part of an organization dedicated to it.

“We’re still in the forest then?”

“Yes. We’re safe here. Demons don’t like the wolf.”

It sounds like a joke but Shiro feels certain it isn’t. He’s refused so far to look at the animal Keith has been occasionally petting, hoping by delaying the action the creature will turn into a small lap dog. The luxury of his imagination is denied to him when the animal puts its head on the bed.

If Shiro had a functioning body he would have jumped but he’s only capable of breathing slightly harder as he takes in the size of the wolf.

It’s massive. Shiro has seen wolves before so he’s used to their startling size compared to dogs, but this one is beyond that. It’s definitely larger than Keith, larger than Shiro, and larger than anything a cabin this size should contain and it’s a miracle Shiro has been able to avoid looking at it until now.

“What’s its name?” Shiro asks diplomatically. He hopes it will spark some background on how Keith started caring for a wolf that looks at least twice the size of an average wolf. He knows people like talking about their pets.

“He hasn’t said yet.”

“I see.”

The conversation dies a quick death.

Shiro’s stomach growls, saving them.

“Would you like something to eat? I have broth so you don’t need to worry about chewing.”

Shiro has millions of questions, all pressing. First, how exactly was he alive? The last thing he can remember is that he was bleeding out on the forest floor and Keith’s face hovered before him. He thinks there might have been a kiss but no—that seems unlikely. That part was probably a hallucination.

Why did Keith save him? Why was Keith wandering around at night in a forest known for demons? Actually, why did Keith live in a cozy little cabin in a demon infested forest? And what the hell was that wolf.

He doesn’t ask any of his questions though. Hunger wins over any fear or desire for knowledge. “Yes, please. I’d like that.”

Keith gives him a proud little look that makes Shiro feel like he’s said the right thing. It’s the same look his instructors at the Garrison used to give him whenever he answered their questions correctly—except when the look comes from Keith it makes Shiro feel a way they certainly did not. He’s not sure if it’s impressive or pathetic that while the thought of holding a spoon makes him sweat in fear another part of his body is happily unaffected by his injuries and may yet embarrass him enough to make him wish Keith had left him on the forest floor.

Keith heads back in the direction of what must be the kitchen. The water has helped a bit, restoring Shiro’s strength enough that he takes his time to look around the room while Keith works. Mainly it’s an attempt to avoid looking at the wolf, though it’s somewhat futile because the wolf takes up so much space.

The cabin is larger than his first impressions of it. What he didn’t take into account is the size of the bed. Keith appears to live alone but the bed easily can fit another person or two or three—or Shiro suspects, it can fit a man and a gigantic wolf.

Opposite of the bed is a log couch with blankets and pillows strewn about it. It looks like that’s where Keith’s been sleeping since Shiro commandeered his bed. Behind the couch are two windows shuttered tight, blocking out any light. His sense of time comes from the darkness of the cabin but it’s entirely possible outside the sun is shining. He wouldn’t be able to tell.

A long, tall bookshelf and a wardrobe are at the foot of the bed, covering the wall. The bookshelf is filled to the brim, the shelves doubled in some places with the spines of books hanging off. He notes the drawers on the bottom of the wardrobe have locks—maybe that’s where Keith hides the wolf food.

Shiro musters the courage to look behind him, squeezing his eyes shut in pain as he moves. When he opens them he can see a headboard the doubles as a shelf, a doorway that must lead to the kitchen, a brightly burning fireplace, and a door bolted shut. There’s a small table near the door where a lantern sits and a few sets of shoes are underneath. Shiro recognizes one of the pairs as his. The cabin overall is sparsely decorated with only a few carved figures here and there. There’s not much to go on for Keith’s personality. So far Shiro has likes dogs, reading, and being in sauna-like temperatures.

Keith returns to the room carrying a bowl of broth on a tray. It’s the nicest smell Shiro’s nose has ever encountered. He’s not sure how long he’s been asleep but he suspects the answer is “a while” with the way his stomach pangs in hunger and yet the powerful stirs of hunger isn’t enough to drown out another type of stirring when he notices Keith is wearing a small pair of shorts that show off long, long, bare legs. Shiro can’t be certain without standing but it doesn’t look like Keith reaches his eyes and maybe doesn’t even reach his nose, but Keith’s legs look as long as Shiro’s. In conclusion, Keith is at least 75% leg. Maybe 90%. He’s very leg.

The tantalizing length of skin disappears from sight as Keith sits on a wooden chair next to the bed. Shiro mourns what he’s lost. He had never known he was a leg man until seeing Keith’s legs.

Keith interrupts his mourning. “It’s not much but it should tide you over until you can eat something solid.” Keith seems slightly on edge and it makes Shiro nervous that his staring didn’t go unnoticed. It was definitely not his intention to make the person that saved him feel uncomfortable. He forces all thoughts of bare legs and tiny shorts out of his mind and focuses on Keith bringing the spoon to his mouth.

“Hot.” Shiro’s tongue is burning and while it’s nothing compared to the rest of the pain he’s in he would prefer taking the necessary step to maintain feeling in his tongue in the future.

“Sorry,” Keith sounds like he truly means it. He blows air on the spoon this time and Shiro feels grateful Keith doesn’t expect him to use his lungs in any meaningful way. His chest aches in a way that suggests a rib or two or all are broken.

The fireplace crackles softly and the wolf isn’t a quiet beast, but the overall atmosphere in the cabin is a quiet serenity. Keith doesn’t seem to be the type inclined to fill the silence and it’s taking all of Shiro’s concentration to swallow.

Keith lets the wolf lick clean what Shiro can’t finish and takes everything back to the kitchen. When he returns he sits on the chair and waits for Shiro to speak, correctly guessing that Shiro will.

“How long have I been asleep?”

“I brought you to my cabin yesterday. You slept through a full night and day.”

Shorter than Shiro would have expected given his condition. He feels like shit but with his injuries, it’s a miracle he’s awake already.

“I was dying—dead, really. How am I alive? You said this cabin was a few hours from the nearest village? Did you bring a doctor here?”

Keith picks at the threading on Shiro’s blanket. “You were bleeding, not dead. The wolf helped. He travels much faster than a horse. I just had to make sure you didn’t bleed out entirely before we made it back to the cabin. From there I patched you up as best as I could. I have a little experience in the healing arts.”

The wolf travels faster than a horse. Shiro wants clarification on that bit even though he knows in his heart it must be exactly as it sounds—Keith uses the wolf as a steed. Ridiculous.

The wolf whines for attention; Keith gives it a light scratch on its ears.

“He’s a rather tame wolf,” Shiro says.

“He’s not. He’s a brat.”

A wolf that can be described as a brat sounds like a rather tame one to Shiro.

“I owe you my life. Thank you. I’ll do what I can to repay you for the trouble I’ve caused.” He’s taken Keith’s bed, used up his medical supplies, is eating his food, and even if the wolf did most of the work it can’t have been easy for someone Keith’s size to lift Shiro’s deadweight to and from the wolf.

“You owe me nothing. You needed help.” His voice is sharp, angry even. Shiro is taken aback.

“I just meant—you’re even feeding me.”

“I’m not going to patch you up and then let you starve.” That isn’t what Shiro meant but he doesn’t know how to explain himself without angering Keith further. “Rest now. You can ask more questions in the morning.”

He helps Shiro lay down before burying himself in the nest he’s made on the couch. The wolf sleeps on the floor next to him. Shiro knows he wants to sleep on the couch with Keith but is unable to comfortably fit on it. Shiro has met enough dogs to understand the way they think.

Shiro falls asleep to the sound of the fire burning.

In his dreams Keith comes to him, bringing warmth as he draws near, and straddles his waist with his long, bare legs. Keith kisses Shiro and each kiss breathes life into his aching body.

 

♠️

The windows are uncovered and the door open when Shiro wakes up. Keith is outside in a little garden Shiro can see through the windows. Shiro doesn’t see the wolf but he can’t imagine he’s wandered off too far, not with the way he’s attached to Keith. Keith is filling a basket from the garden. Shiro thinks he recognizes the orange of a carrot but Keith is too far to make out much else. The garden grows wildly, flowers and herbs and vegetables planted with no discernible pattern. It has none of the carefully sectioned plots of the Garrison’s gardens thought if Hunk could see it he’d rejoice in the variety presented. Hunk has complained about the Garrison’s weak selection of herbs and spices for as long as Shiro has known him.

The pain from the night before has subsided. It’s not entirely gone but it’s a world apart from the all-encompassing pain of last night. Keith won’t have to spoon feed him like an invalid today.

Unfortunately, a new problem arises: Shiro is in dire need of emptying his bladder.

Standing proves to be difficult. He feels as if he hasn’t used his legs in years. His knees give out almost immediately; he falls with a loud thud and a string of curses that Iverson would have boxed his ears for when he was a teenager. His failure to function alerts Keith. He comes running into the cabin, his basket left behind.

“Shiro!” He calls frantically. He helps Shiro stand and holds him steady by the waist. Shiro tells himself he’s leaning against Keith for support not being fully propped up by Keith’s surprisingly strong arms. Like Shiro suspected the night before Keith is a fair amount shorter than him and leaner too. “What are you doing? You’re too weak to be walking around.”

Keith is barefoot and in those shorts again, or maybe it’s a different pair and tiny shorts are all he owns, just to better taunt Shiro with when he looks down.

“Trust me, I know. I wouldn’t be getting up if I didn’t have to. You don’t happen to have a lavatory somewhere?” He doesn’t say outhouse, though he suspects that’s what it will be.

He’s right, but it’s not as far as he worried it would be. They go through the kitchen and exit from another door. There are two small buildings not far from the main cabin. One is larger and must be a bath or shower while the second is what Shiro’s looking for.

When he’s done the wolf is waiting for him. He’s nightmarishly large which is to say he’s slightly taller than Shiro is on four legs. Shiro reaches out to tentatively pet his head. This pleases the wolf. He licks Shiro’s hand and wags his tail.

“He likes you.”

Shiro’s heart beats wildly at Keith’s sudden appearance. The man is too quiet.

“The wolf’s not as scary as he looks. Are you buddy?” Shiro scratches along the wolf’s jaw.

“He is. He just likes you.” Keith walks up to the other side of the wolf’s head. “Would you like breakfast?”

Shiro’s stomach growls in affirmation for him. He hopes that doesn’t become a trend.

Breakfast is fresh eggs from a hen house behind the cabin. They cluck around Keith’s feet as he gathers a handful of eggs.

“It can’t be easy keeping the hens safe from predators,” Shiro remarks. Locked up at night is one thing, but Keith lets them wander around freely in the yard, only a small fence keeping them from getting lost in the forest.

“The wolf keeps them safe.”

Shiro refrains from pointing out the wolf is exactly the kind of predator Shiro is thinking of. Unnaturally, the wolf ignores the hens and the hens ignore him. Perhaps they’re such small snacks to the wolf he doesn’t see the point or maybe the wolf is a vegetarian.

“How are you feeling?” Keith asks when they’ve finished eating.

The wolf is outside. Keith doesn’t seem to worry it will wander away and eat a passing stranger.

“Better, much better.” He checked over his wounds while in the outhouse and was shocked at how well they healed. His wounds look days—if not weeks—old but if Keith is to be believed it hasn’t even been two full days. “You’re a skilled healer.”

Keith rearranges the pillows on the couch and avoids looking at him. “Not really.”

Shiro is starting to get a feel for when Keith wants to change the subject. “Did you build this cabin yourself?”

Keith perks up and the pillows are forgotten. “No, my father did. But I built the henhouse and garden shed. The garden is mine, too. When my father was alive we got most of our food from the forest or traded for it in the village.”

“How did you”—Shiro searches for the right words—”meet the wolf?”

“After my father died my mother asked the wolf to watch over me since she can’t stay with me herself.”

It sounds like the fantasies of a child. A dead father, a missing mother, and a wolf puppy found in the forest. Shiro can picture it all with ease. But Keith isn’t a child. Most likely the truth isn’t something he wants to share. Shiro understands. There are things he doesn’t want to share either.

Shiro clenches his fist.

“I meant it earlier. I want to repay you somehow but there’s not much I can offer. I think you’ve already guessed I’m a demon hunter by trade, but I’m not with the Garrison or any other organization. I lost all of my weapons in the forest but I can probably make do with anything.” He looks at where the wolf is chasing after a butterfly. “But something tells me you don’t need that sort of help.”

“No, not really.”

Shiro nods. “In that case, I’d like to at least help with any chores you need done. I do warn you though that if it requires two hands I’m not the right man for the job.” He points at his missing arm.

His attempts to lighten the mood do the opposite. Keith frowns at him as if noticing for the first time Shiro’s right arm is missing which is impossible considering Shiro’s shirt was changed at some point. Like most people, Keith probably forgot Shiro’s arm was missing because he hides his difficulties well.

“We’ll see,” Keith says. “I appreciate the offer, but right now I want you to rest. It’s not going to make me happy if you reopen your wounds planting tomatoes.”

Shiro clamps his mouth shut when he sees the glare Keith is leveling at him. He nods in understanding, not quite trusting his mouth not to protest and claim he was fine.

Keith’s expression softens. “There’s a bench on the porch if you’d like to sit outside. You can choose any of the books to read. Resting doesn’t need to mean boredom.”

Keith takes leave to the garden. Shiro’s eyes trail after him. Keith bends over to pick strawberries in a pose that makes Shiro’s imagination take off. Shiro looks away quickly and thinks about every single awkward encounter he’s ever had in the Garrison’s bathhouses to kill the rush of desire Keith sends through him.

He browses through Keith’s bookshelves. The variety is overwhelming—Keith is clearly a collector. There are books on history, mathematics, gardening and plants; fairy tales and romances, cookbooks, almanacs, and everything in-between. He pulls out a book on animals of the forest when a plain red leather book behind it catches his eyes. He sets aside the forest animals to flip through the red book.

It’s a journal judging by the dates at the top but it’s not written in a language Shiro recognizes—not at first. The handwriting renders it differently from what he’s used to. It’s Altean, a dead language Shiro has seen bits and pieces of while at the Garrison. It’s the same language that covers his arm.

As he ponders asking Keith about the journal he turns to a page that stops him cold. It’s an illustration. A few had dotted the pages here and there but this one takes up a whole page. It’s a woman with sharp features holding a baby in her arms. Her gaze is loving and kind but there are horns on her head and strange markings on her face. She isn’t human.

Shiro shuts the book and puts it back where he found it. He feels as if he’s seen something he shouldn’t have. He can’t shake the feeling he’s violated Keith's privacy somehow when by all accounts the journal is just one of many Keith has bought because it looked interesting to him. It may even be something his father bought years ago and Keith doesn’t even realize he owns it.

Shiro grabs a book on gardening and a romance novel that “promises to make his heart yearn” and settles on the porch. He reads the day away, refusing to let thoughts of the woman and baby take purchase in his mind.

 

♠️

Shiro’s healing slows to a reasonable pace. It’s three days after the journal incident before Keith grudgingly allows him to help with any chores, giving in less because Shiro has healed and more because Shiro’s stubbornness wears him down.

“If you feel tired, rest. I mean it. I'll poison your food with sleep aid if you don’t. You won’t be able to get out of bed.”

Shiro follows Keith through the forest lugging a wagon of laundry behind him. They’re walking on a path Keith must have made; Shiro is grateful for it because it makes pulling the wagon easy.

“Are you listening?” Keith demands.

“Don’t strain myself or you’ll poison me. Got it.”

Keith stops and makes a face at him but otherwise doesn’t comment further. His small frame is overwhelmed by a giant bucket and washboard, though he isn’t having any difficulties carrying them.

They reach a small stream, not wide enough to be called a river, and Keith starts the process of washing the pile of clothing, towels, and bedding he made Shiro help gather and carry on the wagon. Shiro’s tattered old clothes (torn and bloodied from his encounter with the sloth demon) are mixed in there; he’s been letting Shiro borrow clothing in the meantime. Given their size difference Shiro guesses the clothing belonged to Keith’s father.

The shorts Keith wears today are loose and airy and his shirt is sleeveless, exposing toned arms. His hair is tied back in a bun that draws Shiro’s eyes to the nape of his neck. Shiro wants so badly to kiss the skin there. He has to keep staring at the ground to avoid looking at it.

Shiro isn’t a stranger to desire but the way he wants Keith is unlike anything he’s ever felt before. It’s more than his looks—if Shiro had been asked before to describe his type his mind would have never conjured up someone like Keith—it’s an aura around him that catches Shiro’s attention. He’s at his most alluring when he’s making an indulgent smile at the wolf stealing food off his plate.

“You said you don’t work for the Garrison. But your supplies—they look Garrison issued.” Keith washes their laundry in a bucket while Shiro rinses the soapy garments Keith hands him in the river. They make an efficient pair.

“That’s because I used to be part of the Garrison but we had a bit of a falling out.” The falling out is that Shiro is blamed for his own kidnapping by the witch in a messy cover-up that dragged Shiro’s reputation through the mud. He could have lived with that though: the real issue is he knows better than to show the Garrison his arm. It’s the kind of thing that would get him locked up and experimented on.

“But you still hunt?”

“It’s what I’m good at.” He wrings out a dark shirt. “I try to save people that the Garrison doesn’t have time for. Like the villagers near the forest. It’s too much effort for the Garrison to investigate every little demon sighting. A missing person or two can be written off as wolves or an accident and because this forest is known to attract demons that ironically makes the Garrison less likely to help them. The Garrison thinks the villagers see demons where there aren’t any. I understand why—every little failure gets blamed on demons. The crop yield is bad a year? A gluttony demon ate the crops. A man cheats on his wife? A lust demon led him astray. Bad luck strikes? A wrath demon or an envy demon is the culprit. That’s how people start to think. Not everywhere I go unearths a demon. Sometimes bad luck is just bad luck.”

“But when you do find a demon you kill them.” Keith stops scrubbing Shiro’s pants. “If you found a gluttony demon simply eating crops you would kill it rather than satisfy its hunger?” Keith is angry, angrier than Shiro has seen him yet and he hasn’t exactly been the most cheerful host. “You’d kill a lust demon for sleeping with a married man instead of punishing the man that was cheating? You wouldn’t care if a wrath or envy demon was acting at the direction of a human, striking a deal in exchange for causing some mischief?”

Shiro bristles at Keith’s accusations. “That’s not how it works. A gluttony demon will never be satisfied with only crops. They’ll move on to animals and human flesh. A lust demon will take pieces of your life energy every time you sleep with them. And I never suggested a human that makes a deal with a demon should go unpunished.”

“You think you’re so clever. That you have everything figured out. I tire of you. Take what’s been washed and set them to dry.” He scrubs furiously at Shiro’s pants, washing away stains that aren’t there. “What are you still standing there for?”

Shiro thinks of the demon woman and the baby. How peaceful she seems on page. But that’s only a drawing. “Keith, if you’re in contact with any demons—you need to be careful. The higher level ones may seem charming and even human-like but they’re the most dangerous of them all. It’s their nature to trick people into making deals with them.”

“And what would someone self-righteous like you know about talking to demons? It sounds like you kill them on sight.” He spits the words out like venom.

“I know because that’s what happened to my parents.”

Shiro doesn’t mean to say it and doesn’t have a plan once he does. It’s not information he shares easily. Few at the Garrison knew about his parents—his mentor Samuel Holt, an ex-boyfriend, and a few officials high in command that looked into his past. His tragic backstory isn’t something to pull out to win an argument; he wants to take back saying it at all.

“I was sick as a child—so sick I died.” He stares down at the stream, refusing to check Keith’s reaction. “I don’t know how exactly but a demon convinced my parents that it could bring me back. Obviously, it wasn’t lying—it just forgot to mention the price for my life would be theirs.”

Keith walks against the stream, the water splashing his bare legs as he does. It’s the first time he hasn’t been able to sneak up on Shiro.

“How do you know they were tricked? Maybe that was a price they were willing to pay for their child.”

Keith stands in front of him, close enough that Shiro can count his eyelashes, close enough that he can imagine bridging the distance between them. He aches to wrap his arms around Keith—and that is a dangerous thought. The right arm can’t come out, can’t activate.

“I—I hadn’t considered that possibility. But does it matter? Two lives aren’t worth one. I wasn’t supposed to live.”

Keith grabs Shiro’s face; his skin burns where Keith touches. Shiro doesn’t know how—Keith is cold and wet but he radiates heat, radiates fire from his very core. Keith pulls him down and Shiro closes his eyes. Their closeness feels familiar—like it’s a dream come to life. He thinks of the dream he had the first night of Keith straddling him. Keith was hot then too.

But the real Keith isn’t like the one in Shiro’s dreams. He doesn’t kiss him—he smacks their foreheads together with a loud thump. “Stop being so stubborn.” Keith backs away, not the least bit sorry for his actions.

“Ow,” Shiro says slightly delayed but with the sentiment still there. “What happened to being careful with the injured man?”

Keith tosses Shiro’s wet soapy pants at his face. “Rinse, then start setting things out to dry. I won’t repeat myself again.”

Shiro mumbles under his breath about discourteous forest men and makes sure to splash Keith as he rinses out his pants. Keith rolls his eyes but otherwise ignores his dramatics and Shiro has to force down the smile that’s threatening to come up. He feels as if he’s taken a heavy traveling bag off his shoulders or as if he’s just discovered the key to floating on water is to relax.

He thinks Keith is naïve about demons but it’s true that humans aren’t always helpless victims in their interactions with them. Sometimes they make decisions knowing the consequences of their actions and sometimes they make deals knowing the price they’ll have to pay.

 

♠️

Strangely, talking to Keith is easier after their argument. It wasn’t as if things were always tense before but he understands now what Keith is like when he’s truly angry and when he’s simply being ill-mannered. The bluntness that kept shutting Shiro down is no longer an obstacle. Shiro just has to ask better questions and to keep asking them.

“Did your father teach you how to cook?” Shiro asks over breakfast.

“He tried but he was a terrible cook. I’ve been teaching myself from cookbooks since I was old enough to read.”

“How old was that?” It’s unusual for people in the countryside to learn more than how to read numbers.

“Six? Maybe seven.”

In the evening when Keith is fiddling with the fire he asks, “Which one is your favorite book?”

“I like looking through the atlases. Some of them are outdated but I still like to imagine visiting the places they show.” He huddles into himself in front of the fire and it strikes Shiro as a very sad and lonely action.

“Did you carve these figures yourself?” Shiro points at the little statues on the fireplace. They’re varying degrees of complexity; the most lifelike one is of the wolf.

“Yes. It gets boring here in the winter so I try to find things to do, especially things I can do inside and away from the cold.”

“I’ve noticed you’re a big fan of staying warm.”

“I’m never really warm,” Keith says mysteriously and Shiro knows he won’t get any further down that line of conversation. He switches to safer topics about how Keith learned to carve.

One morning when Keith is gathering eggs it occurs to Shiro to ask what the chickens are named.

“Black, Red, Yellow, Green, and Blue.” Keith points to each chicken as he names them and Shiro considers Keith may be colorblind.

At that hottest part of the day they give the wolf a bath in the river. Shiro doesn’t see the point when they both know the wolf will cover himself in dirt the moment he’s out of the water.

“How old are you anyway?” Shiro asks. Keith strikes him as the type of person that time barely affects.

“Twenty-one in the fall.”

It’s the start of spring. “So twenty,” Shiro translates.

Keith pouts. “What are you, forty?”

“Hey! Watch it. I’m a youthful twenty-six. Also, I just turned twenty-six so I’m not that much older than you.”

“Whatever, old timer.”

Shiro splashes him setting off a water fight that the wolf joins in on. The fight ends in an overwhelming victory for the wolf.

On a late afternoon, Shiro helps Keith plant seeds in the garden. The process unveils the mystery of why Keith’s garden is such a mess: he plants from jars of unlabeled seeds all mixed together and clearly has no idea what he’s planting as a result. At least that’s the conclusion Shiro draws when Keith claims two definitely different seeds are both for tomatoes—it says so in his book.

“Have you ever been to the city?” Shiro asks between planting.

“Once, with my father. I hated it.”

“What part did you hate?” Since Shiro has no idea what they’re planting he just sticks the seeds in the ground without a second thought. Spacing? Ideal depth? Those are for people that know what they’re doing.

“Too many people around makes my skin crawl.”

“Was there anything you liked?”

Keith bites his lower lip. Shiro wishes he could bite Keith’s lip too. “The food.”

“What about it did you like? How it was prepared? Or did you try something new?”

“Both, I guess. I have all these cookbooks listing ingredients I can’t get unless I go to the city.”

“Are there any foods you didn’t like?”

Keith wrinkles his nose and answers without hesitation. “Squid.”

“Squid?”

“Squid.”

“You go into the village sometimes to trade, right? Why don’t you ever try to set something up to get what you want without going into the city? Traders must pass by the village.” As long Keith doesn’t need fresh ingredients arrangements can be made.

Keith shoves five different seed types into a single hole. “The villagers don’t like me much. They only trade with me because they remember my father. They’re not going to go out of their way for me.”

“Make a list of ingredients that you want. When I’m healed I can get them and bring them back for you. Or you can come with me if you’d like.”

“Come with you?” Keith stops and stares at Shiro.

“Yes, to the city. You might not hate being around people as much as you did in the past. It can be overwhelming being in a big city for the first time. And if you really can’t stand the crowds there are quieter places. I think you would like some of the parks and public gardens.”

Keith plays with the seeds inside in the jar, stirring them like he would a drink. “It might not be so bad, going with you. But I can’t. Maybe I’ll make a list. If that's not too much trouble for you. I don't want you to go out of your way for me.”

“It’s no trouble at all. I want to make you happy.” The admission is more boldfaced than Shiro intends but it’s worth it for the way Keith’s face goes red like the tomatoes he claims to be planting.

He shoves the jar of seeds into Shiro’s hand. “Just plant your seeds already.”

Shiro can’t stop the violent bulging of his eyes or the choked sounds he makes that cycle between coughing and laughing.

It takes Keith a moment to understand what he’s implied but when he does he truly goes as red as a tomato. It’s an incredible image, one that Shiro will carry with him for the rest of his life. He didn’t know people really could turn that red. It’s like an instant sunburn, but worse.

“I wasn’t trying to imply—stop laughing!” His cheeks puff up in anger and it only makes Shiro laugh harder.

Shiro struggles for breath as he replies. “You—your face—it’s so damn red.”

Keith pushes him; the seeds spill in such a way that they leave a trail on Shiro’s stomach. That makes him laugh even harder.

“You’re a menace!” Keith tries to shove at Shiro but Shiro rolls out of reach from his pesky hands, spilling seeds in every direction.

Shiro wipes tears from his eyes, still laughing when suddenly there’s a sound so beautiful it makes his heart clench.

Keith is laughing. It’s not some tiny giggle either, but a full belly splitting laugh.

“What?” Shiro asks.

“You have seeds everywhere. They’re down your pants, down your shirt, in your hair. I should just dig a hole in the ground and plant you instead.”

Shiro grabs a handful of seeds and flings them at Keith. “Better dig two holes.”

Keith gasps. Shiro is only able to appreciate it for a second before Keith is lunging for the pile of seeds at Shiro’s feet.

“Oh no, you don’t!” He tackles Keith before he can grab any seeds.

They wrestle in the dirt like children. Keith is strong and has the advantage of two arms but Shiro didn’t survive so long to be outwitted by either of those things. Keith is too focused on neutralizing Shiro’s arm that he forgets Shiro has legs. Shiro uses the strength of his thighs to pin Keith down.

Keith thrashes underneath him. The friction is dangerous and distracting. It gives Keith the opening he needs to flip them over.

He smirks, victorious, but all Shiro can focus on is Keith grinding on top of him in tiny, tiny shorts that Shiro wants to stick his hand into. He starts to imagine it. It will be a tight fit; Keith’s shorts are clinging closely to him today. Shiro will have to use one finger at a time to stretch out the fabric, sliding in slowly and carefully.

The image is too vivid, too real—and with the wrong hand.

It happens before he can stop it. His right arm activates, forming into existence. It’s a red, ugly thing, with black markings and lettering of the Altean language. He thinks the arm may have belonged to a demon, once upon a time, and was taken by the witch. Perhaps the witch switched their arms and there was a demon out there running around with Shiro’s missing right arm. More likely this was all that was left of the demon after the witch’s experiments.

Keith’s expression is unreadable as he takes in Shiro’s cursed arm. It’s curiosity, maybe. Not filled with disgust like it should be.

He strokes the back of Shiro’s hand with care and longing, like Shiro’s arm is something to be treasured. The touch ignites something in Shiro; it feels like two magnets connecting each time Keith touches him.

It terrifies him.

He shoves Keith off, not gently, and scrambles away, destroying a small patch of sprouts just beginning to peak out from the dirt.

He deactivates the arm in shame. He wanted to touch Keith with that cursed hand, soil him and defile him with it and Keith was naïve and innocent enough to let him.

“Shiro.” Keith reaches out slowly like Shiro’s a spooked animal.

“Don’t!” Keith backs off, hurt in his eyes. Shiro laughs; it’s an ugly thing, not the easy laughter of before. “Don’t touch me. I’m cursed. All these days and you never asked me about my arm—out of kindness or pity, I don’t know. Well, there it is. A witch captured me. I don’t remember all of it, just bits and pieces. I was found by the Garrison a year later and missing an arm. Or at least that’s what they thought. You saw the truth.”

“Shiro—”

“—I’m almost healed now. I can leave in the morning. You don’t need to worry about seeing me again.”

“Shiro, please listen, I—” Whatever he was going to say is lost when the wolf begins to howl. “Shit. Shiro, get inside.”

“What is it?”

Keith is scared. He saw Shiro’s deformed arm and didn’t back away. He walks in the forest at night and has a giant wolf companion—he doesn’t get scared.

“I said get inside.” His tone doesn’t allow for argument.

Keith follows him but it becomes clear he doesn’t plan on staying. He puts on socks that go past his thighs with long boots to match. He unlocks the bottom drawer of the wardrobe and pulls out an ornate dagger Shiro guesses is worth more than everything else in the cabin combined and straps it to his thigh.

“Whatever happens Shiro—stay inside. I’ll be safe with the wolf but if I think you’re wandering around after me I might—” He cuts off abruptly and puts on a dark jacket, his back to Shiro.

“Just stay inside.” Keith closes the door of the cabin, not once looking behind him.

Shiro sits on the bed dazed, barely registering that his heart is racing from fear. He can’t stay here. Keith knows about his arm. He might even think Shiro is a demon and in his stupid, sweet innocence accepts Shiro as one.

Shiro isn’t a demon but he’s no less dangerous for it, even without the arm. His trade is death and it’s time he returns to it.

Keith is pure and good and deserves a life unstained by Shiro’s curse.