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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.

Chapter Text

Shiro takes his time packing.

He doesn’t have much beyond the clothes he was wearing when Keith saved him (and they’re mostly torn to shreds) so he has to take from Keith’s things—even the bag itself is Keith’s.

It fills him with no small amount of guilt to take more from Keith when Keith has already given him so much but the alternative is begging the entire journey home.

He has a place in the city. It’s not much, just a small cramped apartment he shares with a hunter-in-training named Lance. Lance can be overwhelming to deal with but he’s one of the few people that still think Shiro can do no wrong and that’s better than having a roommate that eyes him suspiciously.

Shiro is still packing when the door bursts open.

It’s Keith drenched in water. Shiro looks behind Keith to see if it’s raining.

It’s not.

Keith shivers. “Can you help me get the fire going?”

Shiro stares at him mutely.

The wolf follows Keith inside, equally wet. While Keith shuts the door Shiro scrambles to start a fire. Keith and the wolf have both brought in a chill with them. The normal warmth of the cabin has been sucked out.

“Thank you,” Keith says when the fire roars to life from Shiro’s overzealous efforts.

“What happened?” Shiro asks.

“It was nothing. A false alarm. But we fell into the river on the way back.” He undresses as he speaks, unlacing his boots with quick fingers and pulls down his socks and shorts. He steps out of them and leaves them on the floor to search through his wardrobe. He tosses his jacket and shirt off next and when he starts to take off his underwear, Shiro finally looks away.

There were a large set of scars across Keith’s back that looked suspiciously like claw marks. Shiro wants to know how he got them and more importantly, he wants to know what it would feel like to kiss the healed-over skin.

The wolf curls up in front of the fire. Shiro wonders if he should get a towel for him but decides it would be a futile endeavor to try drying the wolf off with a towel made for humans.

“What’s that?” Keith asks. There’s a sharp edge to it.

Shiro turns around to see he’s looking at the bag Shiro packed.

Keith doesn’t wait for his answer. He tears the bag open. He’s put on an oversized sweater and drawstring pants. It’s the most covered up Shiro has ever seen him and that in itself is a charm point. The sleeves almost cover his fingers. It’s cute. He’s cute. He’s angry and pissed and overall looks like he wants to hit Shiro but in his too big clothes and wet hair, he looks as harmless as an angry kitten. Shiro wants to hold him desperately. He shoves the thought away. Now was not the time.

“Were you planning on leaving while I was out?”

“No. Yes? It doesn’t matter now. But I have to leave in the morning. I’ve stayed here too long.”

“Fine.” The finality of his words is a glass shard in Shiro’s heart.

Shiro expected an argument and berates himself for feeling disappointed. He thought Keith would want to talk about what happened earlier in the garden and maybe even try to stop him from leaving but that was a stupid fantasy conjured from his deluded longing for Keith. Shiro’s attraction is one-sided and the quicker he gets away from Keith the better. They can both go back to their regular lives—Shiro hunting demons until one eventually kills him and Keith doing forest-y things in the forest with his wolf companion. Whatever.

Shiro climbs into bed and broods. His misery takes all of his attention. He misses the way the bed dips when Keith slides under the covers next to him. He only realizes what has happened when cold arms wrap around him and hold him tight.

Shiro panics; Keith’s hold grows more constricting, keeping him from rolling away. “Keith! What are you doing?”

“I’m cold and this is my bed.”

“We can switch places. I can take the couch.” He tries to get up but Keith utterly refuses to let him go.

“I’m cold and you’re warm. Stop trying to run away.”

“I’m cursed Keith, you shouldn’t touch me. I’ll taint you.”

“Have I ever mentioned that you’re too stubborn? You can’t taint me, Shiro. You can’t taint anyone. You’re a good person, Shiro. Now go to sleep.”

He’s wrong but Shiro is tired of arguing with him. He’s tired in general, exhausted from this day and every day before it.

He falls asleep in Keith’s arms and dreams of nothing.

 

♠️

Shiro leaves before Keith wakes up. He doesn’t stir as Shiro extracts himself from his hold. The wolf watches him though, his gaze calculating as if he’s judging Shiro for leaving without saying goodbye to Keith.

He says goodbye to the wolf instead to make up for it. The wolf says nothing back, just continues to stare at him with too knowing eyes. He doesn’t try to pet the wolf, for once worried he might get bitten.

The villagers are shocked to find out Shiro is still alive.

“We thought you were dead for sure,” one of them drawls. His accent is so thick Shiro can barely understand him. It strikes Shiro that Keith doesn’t have any traces of the local accent. He speaks like someone from the city.

“So did I. But a man named Keith saved me.”

“Ah, Keith,” says another man. “He’s a peculiar boy, ain’t he?” The villagers nod amongst themselves. Keith’s peculiarities are apparently common knowledge. Shiro isn’t sure how he feels about that.

“I'm not sure I know what you mean,” Shiro says carefully, not intending to invite conversation on the subject. It doesn’t work.

“His pop grew up here,” the first man says, “but went to the big city to be a doctor. Only he went and got himself in a bit of trouble it seems. His lady had walked out and left him with a newborn babe. He claimed the babe was his but if you had ever seen the man, you’d understand why some doubt his claim.”

Shiro bristles at the man’s speculation. It’s not his or anyone’s business whether or not Keith is related to his father by blood. It’s the type of gossip Shiro has always hated and it’s even worse hearing it about Keith.

Something in his expression must give away his displeasure because the man quickly backtracks. “It’s not what I believe! The boy has his eyes, you see. You can tell from that they share blood.”

“It’s the mother that’s the mystery.” A woman—his wife, if Shiro remembers correctly—clicks her tongue in judgment. “She must have been some beauty with how the boy turned out.”

Shiro doesn’t like the way she makes it sound like Keith’s looks are a black mark against him when it’s not something he can control.

“The forest, you know, didn’t always have the reputation it does now,” an older woman says. “When the doctor made it his home there were other folks living there but one by one they left. They didn’t feel safe anymore. They saw things, heard things that weren’t natural. These were good folks mind you, that had been living in the forest for generations. But now only the boy lives there.”

It sounds to Shiro like a typical dwindling village population as younger generations left to find work in the city. Keith’s father was just an example of someone returning when that plan didn’t work out.

“I’m not sure what you’re trying to insinuate but Keith isn’t immune to the dangers of the forest.” He thinks of Keith strapping a dagger to his thigh. It was a beautiful dagger, but it wasn’t for show. “He’s just more than capable of taking care of himself. Plus, he has the wolf.”

“Wolf? What wolf?” someone asks and Shiro has the sinking feeling he’s said something he shouldn’t have. The villagers seem confused—all of them but a young man around Keith’s age. He sees that Shiro’s noticed him and looks away quickly.

“It’s—it’s not really a wolf,” Shiro lies. “It’s just a large dog he calls a wolf. Perhaps he’s only recently acquired it.”

“Typical, to call a dog a wolf. That’s exactly what we mean when we say the boy is peculiar.”

Shiro bites his tongue. He’s had enough of listening to them judge Keith. He’s not harming anyone by living in isolation. If they don’t even know about the wolf they’re in no place to say anything about Keith.

“Thank you for your hospitality, but I must be on my way. There are people waiting for me back in the city. I’ve been gone too long already.” Lies. Lance is used to him disappearing for weeks on end. As long as he arranges to pay his rent money ahead of time there’s no one in the city that will care if he’s gone.

The villagers wish him luck, thanking him one last time for ridding the forest of demons. He almost entirely forgot that was the reason he came to the forest in the first place.

Shiro keeps his pace slow and steady. His wounds are mostly healed but there’s no point in pushing himself. He’ll walk until the sun starts to set and make camp.

He hasn’t been walking for long when he feels something is watching him. He hastens his stride; whatever is following him does the same. There’s a bend in the road and Shiro nearly runs around it to hide and wait for his stalker to appear.

It’s the young man from the village, that one that wasn’t surprised by Shiro’s mention of the wolf.

“You!” Shiro jumps out of a bush; the man screams. “Calm down, I should be the one yelling. Why are you following me?”

Shiro notices the man is carrying a traveling bag.

“I want to be a hunter,” he says, puffing out his chest.

“What’s your name?”

“Griffin. James Griffin.”

“Well, James. I’m happy for you. Now, why are you following me?”

“I just told you, I want—”

“–to be a hunter. Yes, I did hear you speak. What I’m not understanding is what this has to do with me.”

“You’re a hunter—one of the most famous hunters there is. I want you to train me.” The man is lithe like Keith but Shiro can guess he has none of Keith’s strength or agility and as such is completely uninteresting to Shiro,

“No.”

“No?” James repeats.

“I don’t teach and I don’t need a sidekick.”

James seems like the kind of young man that’s never been told no before. A spoiled, pampered child whose parents love him and think everything he does is evidence of genius.

Shiro starts to walk away.

“Wait! I can tell you more about Keith!” Shiro stops walking against his better judgment. “I know him—not like the rest of the villagers with their half-truths and rumors. I can prove it. The wolf—it’s as tall as a man and sleeps in Keith’s bed.”

Shiro turns on his heel and levels James his most withering glare. “I like you even less now. I’m taking you back to the village.”

“No—please!” He holds up his hands. “I want to help people. I’m sorry. I won’t talk about Keith. I just thought you seemed defensive of him.”

“I don’t like discussing a person behind their back. The veracity of the discussion is irrelevant.”

“I wasn’t trying to upset you. I just—I don’t have anything else to offer. Keith is a good person. The villagers are just afraid of what they don’t understand. Don’t make me go back to them.”

“Don’t you have parents?” James has a look about him that screams his mother cuts his hair and picks out his clothes.

“I left them a note.”

“Brilliant. At least I won’t be charged with kidnapping.”

“I’m nearly twenty. I can’t be kidnapped.”

“Anyone can be kidnapped.” Shiro sighs. It’s barely past noon and already he just wants the day to end. “I’m not teaching you. But I can put in a good word at the Garrison. It’s no guarantee they’ll take you but if they do I’m sure you’ll get more from them than trying to learn from me anyway.”

“Really?” James doesn’t seem displeased by Shiro’s suggestion. If anything, he’s even more excited now than he was before.

“Really. Now hurry up before I change my mind.”

 

♠️

James is overbearing,  overeager, and annoying. He completely destroys the solitude Shiro is used to while traveling. Shiro is glad for it at first. It keeps his mind from dwelling on Keith and the way Shiro’s heart broke when Keith didn’t ask him to stay.

Shiro’s peace of mind is destroyed on the second day when James forgets Shiro doesn’t want to talk about Keith. In James’s defense, his slip up is accidental, triggered by Shiro’s offer of a slice of raspberry bread Keith made.

“Keith pushed me into the river once for saying the wolf was getting fat from all the raspberry bread he was feeding it.”

Shiro jumps to Keith’s defense. “The wolf didn’t seem fat to me.”

“This was a while ago. I think I was twelve at the time, so Keith must have been thirteen. If I hadn’t said anything he would have let the wolf gorge himself to death.”

Shiro finds James presumptuous and that opinion is further cemented during the rest of their journey. By responding at all Shiro opens the floodgates to a whole history of presumption. James seems to have grown up fascinated by Keith in a bratty, artless way. Their relationship seems to consist of James pestering Keith until Keith snaps in frustration and by the time they reach their destination, James has described seven different incidents that ended with Keith punching him in the face (punching him in the stomach are an additional fifteen incidents, not that Shiro is trying to count) and Shiro comes to the conclusion that James has a masochistic streak.

He’s glad when he’s able to be rid of James. James probably didn’t need his recommendation to be accepted at the Garrison—they’re always desperate for fresh blood in the never-ending war against demons. Shiro feels a tinge of guilt when he says goodbye James; it feels like he’s led him to the gallows. The life expectancy of a hunter isn’t high. The best Shiro can hope for is that James chooses a path that keeps him out of the field as much as possible, like the Holts or Hunk. He wouldn’t bet on it though with the type of personality James has.

Lance is out when Shiro makes it to the apartment which Shiro is glad for. He doesn’t have the energy to deal with Lance’s dramatics after traveling with James. He locks himself in his bedroom and collapses on top of his bed. The silence is blissful. Not a single obnoxious teenager chittering in his ears.

He needs to change out of his travel clothes. He’s in desperate need of a bath. It will be nice to eat food that’s fresh.

He makes no attempt to do any of these things.

He’s exhausted, mind and body. He can’t even stay in the city for long. He’s tight on money and the village job didn’t pay well. There are other things he can do for coin and things he can sell but he prefers not to unless he has no other choice.

Shiro rolls over onto his back and stares at the ceiling.

Keith’s cabin had a cozy, lived-in feel. It was simple but homey. Shiro’s bedroom is a stark, barely used rest stop. The walls are a pale yellow and there are a wooden chair and desk but everything else is white, grey, or black—with white winning by far. It feels boring, the room of someone with no personality. At least Lance holds sway over the rest of apartment, adding a little color and life to it.

Shiro lets himself mope for a few minutes. Eventually, he can’t stand the way he’s getting dirt on his bedspread and musters up the courage to head to the nearest bathhouse.

When he’s purified from his travels he can start the search for his next job.

 

♠️

Shiro spends the next few weeks parading across the countryside racking up the kills he needs to make next month’s rent. He dislikes taking jobs with money in mind but he doesn’t have a choice after going nearly a month without work. Hunting is neither a lucrative nor glamorous career and is even less so for a hunter working independently. If he was still with the Garrison they would at least provide him with a stipend and shelter if he chose to live in the barracks. The downside is giving up the choice of what jobs to take. The Garrison would decide for him what claims of demonic activity are worth investigating. It’s ironic that it’s that very choice under threat when he has to think about money—it’s not worth following a lead to a village that can only pay him in goods and services when there’s a job that’s willing to pay him in coin.

It’s not the first time he’s been tight on money. He considers the merit of keeping a room in the city at all. He could become a full-fledged wanderer but it’s a lonely existence not having a place to call home. Not that his apartment is much more than a place to sleep and keep his things. He wishes there was someone waiting for him, someone to share his home with. He knows it seems like an absurd wish when he has a roommate but that’s not the type of sharing he means.

Back when he was young and whole he shared a home with someone he cared for. They were partners at the Garrison and became more, moving out of the Garrison’s impersonal barracks into a small place in the city. Their relationship soured not long before he lost his arm to the witch, but he still has fond memories of their time together. Shiro doesn’t miss him specifically so much as he misses having someone. But how can he grow close to another person with his cursed arm? If he keeps his arm a secret it will be like he’s always hiding a part of himself but revealing his secret is something he can’t do. He can’t take their fear, their revulsion at what he is.

A storm rages outside forcing Shiro to spring for a room at an inn. It’s a rare luxury. Shiro prefers to save money by camping but with the rain as it is sleeping outdoors would be reckless. Stuck in an unfamiliar town Shiro chooses to stay in his room and read. He pulls out the red journal he stole from Keith. It wasn’t his intention to take it but the morning of his departure he snatched it off the shelf in a fit of desperation he can’t explain.

He can’t read the journal but it’s filled with sketches. There are several salacious ones of the demon woman—Shiro turns those pages quickly in embarrassment. He doesn’t find any other sketches of the baby but there are a few of a chubby-cheeked child.

Shiro wants to show the book to Pidge. She’s well-versed in everything, including languages, and if anyone could translate it, it was Pidge but if showed it to her she would want to know where he got it from. He could lie but he has a feeling the journal is not connected to Keith. It doesn’t escape him that it might Keith’s father’s journal. The villagers said he was a doctor and while Altean was a long-dead language it was still used in science and medicine. Another thing that makes Shiro suspicious are several anatomical diagrams of demons that suggest the author dissected them. The Garrison dissected demons on occasion searching for weaknesses but even without understanding Altean Shiro gets the sense that’s not what the author was doing.

It’s another reason he doesn’t want to share the book with Pidge. As unconventional as she is, she still harbors the same hatred of demons he does, growing up in a family tied to the Garrison for generations. He doesn’t know how she’ll react to what he guesses is less of a listing of weaknesses and more a catalog of how to treat injured demons.

Maybe he’ll only show a small section to her. He could transcribe a few pages and pretend it was something he found in an old obscure book. If Pidge asks him for details he can say the rest of the book was damaged and unreadable.

It’s not the best plan. Pidge is clever and might see through his lies but his curiosity over the journal wins over caution.

He spends the rest of the day copying a passage that looks safe for Pidge to look over.

 

♠️

“I wish you had kept the rest of the book. I might have been able to restore some pages. I haven’t been able to make complete sense of it—there are some words I can’t find in any dictionaries—but I think I’ve got the gist of it. It’s not exactly Altean? Or it is—but it’s a dialect I’ve never seen before.”

Pidge is hidden behind a stack of books. Her workshop as always is a scene of pure chaos.

Pidge designs hunting gear and weapons. She doesn't work directly for the Garrison, she’s too fiercely independent and has little respect for authority. She’s still connected to the Garrison though as Garrison hunters are her main source of income and her father and brother are members, all of which puts Shiro on edge about sharing any part of the journal with her.

“Sorry Pidge, the book was falling apart,” he lies.

“Too bad,” Pidge grumbles, her head finally appearing from behind a stack of gauntlets. “You really don’t know who wrote it? There wasn’t anything on the cover?”

Shiro shakes his head. “The lettering was too faded.”

“A real shame.” She pulls a stack of papers out of a drawer and dumps them on top of another existing pile. “You can see what I managed to translate here. It took me a while because of the dialect issues.”

Shiro pours over the pages. Pidge’s handwriting is messy and cramped like her workshop. She leaves in her struggles to translate just like she leaves stacks of prototypes all over her workshop. It takes Shiro a while to make sense of what he’s reading but when he does, it’s both what he expected and not.

[...] not in bloom yet. Spring is late this year. It was a slow day yesterday so I made [?] tell me another story. It was sad as usual which I complained about, but [?] tells me I’m missing the point. [?] is wrong, I do see the point. I just don’t like it. I copied this one down so I can’t forget it. I might read it to [?] someday. It was beautiful, even if it was sad.

“The parts where I left question marks are either names or words I can’t gauge the meaning of.” Pidge hovers at his side, following along as he reads. “We actually have no idea how Altean is pronounced so names are tricky. Another issue is the author uses a form of Altean that doesn’t differentiate between gender.”

Shiro’s knowledge of Altean is extremely limited so he only has Pidge’s word to go by for the journal writer’s version of it. If the writer was self-taught it may explain why it didn’t fit the standard form.

Shiro reads through Pidge’s translation with trepidation.

Once upon a time there was a lust demon named [?] who was strong and beautiful and courted by many. But [?] wasn’t interested in any of them. Sure, like most lust demons they craved companionship but it was just that: a craving and like any craving it could be ignored. So [?] ignored it and went on with their life.

[?] was a curious demon and liked to explore. They spent much time at the boundaries of Here and There, despite knowing the dangers of There. They were strong and believed if the Others came for them they would prevail.

Confident in their strength [?] ventured further into There and for the first time saw one of the Others. The Other they saw was frightened and was certain to bring more of the Others after them so [?] knew they had to kill this Other but when they went for the finishing blow they found they couldn’t do it. The Other was young, barely past childhood.

[?] ran away, vowing to never return to There.

For many years, [?] kept that vow but slowly and surely they began to venture back to There. They changed the promise to never returning to the spot where they saw the Other but they broke that too one day. They wanted to see the Other again.

The went back to where they found the Other and kept searching for them until they found a place where many Others lived. [?] used their skill as a lust demon to make themselves blend in with the Others and was welcomed as a traveler. [?] explored and learned about the Others and their home, all while looking for the Other they had met many years before.

They spent much time there, befriending many, including an Other that was charming and clever and gave [?] attention they had never had before. The Other’s attention made [?] forget all about their vows and promises, made them forget why they they avoided There, and worst of all the Other made [?] give into their cravings. For the first time [?] followed their instincts and sought companionship from another being. The Other gave it to them and more, building a home for them.

Time passed, and [?] didn’t return to Here. They were happy being with the Other, their cravings fulfilled. But one day another demon was captured—[?]’s friend.

[?] couldn’t watch their friend die, so they freed them when the rest of the Others were asleep. But their Other had heard them leave and had followed after them. When [?] freed their friend, their Other shot an arrow into their friend’s heart. It wasn’t enough to kill them, so their friend and the Other fought. [?] tried to intervene and in the process their Glamor was lost, revealing their true form.

“It’s you!” their Other said. For their Other was the same Other they had met years before.

[?] tried to explain but their Other was livid with rage. They lashed out, killing their friend.

[?] was struck with a grief so profound they lost themselves to it. Their grief turned into anger and their anger into strength and with that strength they destroyed their Other, turning the connection they had into something ugly and cruel, leaving their Other as nothing more than an empty shell.

When it was over [?] wept, their rage and anger dissipating as easily as they had appeared, leaving behind a deep sorrow and hurt.

What happened next is unknown. Some believe [?] still wanders the border of Here and There while some say they were killed by the Others that had once considered them a friend.

Pidge’s translation keeps going, detailing the author’s reaction to the story and their companion’s favorite version of the ending (apparently their companion likes it when the protagonist kills all of the humans in the village).

Shiro remembers Keith’s anger and wonders if there are more stories like this in the journal that Keith grew up hearing. It would explain why he doesn’t view demons in the black and white way Shiro is accustomed to.

“Do you think it’s true?” Pidge asks, pushing up her glasses. “Not the events of the story but things like demons being able to resist their cravings?”

“I don’t know,” Shiro says honestly. The fact that he’s unsure at all is a confusing feeling.

“I’ve never met a demon that can actually talk before but every account I’ve heard of doesn’t paint the best picture.”

Shiro has experience with demons that can talk. Each time he’s met one the fight was brutal. The sloth demon that almost killed him may have had the ability to speak. It was vaguely humanoid in appearance.

“I’ve met a few but it’s not like I’ve had the chance to chat with one. We’re generally preoccupied with trying to kill each other.”

“But some people do. They’re the ones that make deals. And lust demons are known for charming their victims, though I’m not sure how many words are exchanged for that to happen.”

Shiro snorts. “Probably not many.”

“Are you sure you don’t have the rest of the book?” Pidge blinks up at him with puppy eyes. “You didn’t save a single other page?”

“I wish I had the rest, believe me, Pidge. But this was all I managed to save.” He gathers Pidge’s stack of papers, planning to take them with him.

He looks to where he’s left his bag.

It isn’t there.

“Interesting you would say that Shiro when you brought the book with you.”

Shiro’s blood turns to ice.

He whips around and sees Pidge holding Keith’s book, Shiro’s bag next to her on a workshop table. He wants to punch himself for bringing it but leaving it at home for too long makes him nervous. He doesn’t know when Pidge looked into his bag but he was so engrossed in reading the story it’s not hard to imagine he didn’t hear her moving behind him.

“It’s rude to go through people’s things, Pidge.”

Pidge isn’t a fighter but he’s not a fool. They’re in her territory giving her the advantage. He doesn’t know what half of the weapons in her workshop do. There’s also the fact that fighting Pidge is utterly repugnant to him. She’s like a little sister to him.

“Where did you get this book, Shiro? Don’t lie to me.” Her eyes are iron.

Shiro doesn’t answer.

“Talk to me, Shiro. You disappear for weeks on end, you never visit unless you want something, you drop off some mouthy village boy at the Garrison to be trained, and Lance says when you are home you just lock yourself up in your bedroom.”

Shiro grits his teeth. “You’re keeping tabs on me?”

“Someone has to! Every time I see you, you have a new scar. You’re going to get yourself killed one of these days and the worst part is, you don’t seem to think anyone will notice or care.” She looks like she’s about to cry. He’s only seen her like this once before—when they were reunited after Shiro’s disappearance. She cried in relief at seeing him and cried in grief when she saw his missing arm.

“I’m a hunter, Pidge. What do you want from me? Every mission might be my last. You of all people should understand that.” He gestures at the weapons and gear all around her workshop.

“You don’t need to hunt alone! You need a companion, a partner, maybe Ad—”

“—I understand the risks, Pidge. This is my choice. Give me back the book and I’ll be on my way.”

Pidge wipes tears from her eyes. “Why do you have to be so damn stubborn all the time?”

Stop being so stubborn.

A phantom pain crops up on his forehead.

The fight goes out of him and shame hits. He’s making one of the few people left in the world that cares about him cry. And for what? It’s just a fucking journal. If Keith was so worried about it he would have locked it away like the dagger.

“I stole it.” Pidge sniffs but doesn’t interrupt him. “The book, I stole it. I don’t know if the person that owns it can even read it.”

“And who’s that?” she asks.

Shiro tells her. Not everything. He leaves out his arm and his attraction to Keith but he suspects she can read it off him anyway. Explaining their fight without mentioning the arm is difficult; the mixture of his fear of rejection and tainting of Keith doesn’t have the same impact when they’re fueled by a missing instead of a cursed arm but Pidge thankfully doesn’t pick at his insecurities.

“So you met a hot forest man and ran away, but not before stealing a mysterious book from him that may or may not be his father’s journal. Does that about sum it up?”

“I didn’t say he was hot,” Shiro protests weakly.

“It was implied when you described his legs three different times and said he has, and I quote, ‘pouty lips.’” He thinks that’s unfair. Anyone would have noticed Keith’s legs and what was weird about the word pouty?

“Leave the book with me, Shiro. I’ll see what else I can translate. I promise I won’t share it with anyone. Not even Matt. Meanwhile, you should consider taking a vacation, you look like shit. I hear there’s a cabin in the woods you might enjoy visiting.”

Shiro makes a rude gesture, a rarity for him and something he’s never done to Pidge but she just laughs and walks him out of her workshop, shoving in a few new tools and gadgets into his bag she says he might like but not to touch until after his “vacation.”

 

♠️

Shiro pays his rent for the next month and makes the journey to Keith’s cabin. He turns back at least three times, afraid of what Keith might say or do when he sees him. Pidge didn’t understand the full story. Keith won’t want to be around him now that he knows about Shiro’s arm.

The rational part of his mind that keeps him from running home with his metaphorical tail between his legs reminds him that Keith slept in the same bed as him knowing about his arm. In the garden, he treated it like it was something beautiful and precious instead of monstrous. His acceptance of Shiro is less in question than Shiro’s acceptance of himself. If anyone is going to ruin things it’s going to be Shiro.

That might be the real reason he wants to run back home and lock himself in his room.

What keeps Shiro going is the conviction that it isn’t fair to push Keith away before even listening to what he has to say. How Keith feels about the situation is important. Shiro may be scared he’s unworthy of Keith’s affection but it’s Keith’s choice if he wants to deal with Shiro’s hangups and baggage. Even if romance ends up out of the question the chance for a friendship with Keith is worth battling his fear and anxiety.

Shiro avoids the village. He doesn’t need to go through it to enter the forest even if it makes finding Keith’s cabin a challenge. He navigates unfamiliar paths but he’s certain he’s heading in the right direction. He feels like he’s following a beacon towards Keith.

He hears Keith before he can seem him. The familiar murmur of his voice makes everything else fade away: the soft breeze, the birds chattering, the crunch of the ground under Shiro’s feet all vanish. He follows Keith’s voice, barely keeping himself from running but he doesn’t want to scare Keith and the sound of something barreling toward him in the forest would probably do that.

A woman’s voice crashes into his delusions of reunion. His joy is replaced with sudden, vicious jealousy. His plan to hand his heart to Keith for inspection shrivels up. He’s imagined a dozen ways Keith might reject him but it’s never occurred to him the reason would be because Keith is taken. He foolishly bought into the villager’s portrait of Keith as a loner. He should have known better. If James was a regular visitor who was to say some village girl didn’t stop by too? Keith might have an entire harem of admirers for all Shiro knew.

“You’re not overfeeding the wolf, are you?” The woman’s voice is older—not a village girl then. Maybe older women are Keith’s type and maybe the reason Keith never mentioned her is that she’s a married woman and their relationship is illicit. Shiro’s anxiety thinks it’s a reasonable explanation.

“You always ask that.” Shiro can practically hear Keith roll his eyes. It’s not a very romantic conversation but maybe they’re past that stage of their relationship. “I promise I’m not overfeeding the wolf.”

“And you? Are you even eating at all? You look like you’ve been losing weight.” The concern in her voice sounds genuine. It can’t be a casual fling.

“I eat what I need to.”

“Keith—”

“I don’t want another lecture.”

“Talk to me then. No? Fine. You can’t expect me to watch you wasting away here and say nothing. We’re not meant to be alone. It eats away at us. There was always going to be a point where you needed to leave.”

Keith and the demon woman from the journal are sitting on a fallen tree. The woman is braiding Keith’s hair. Alive and in front of him he can see what the sketch failed to capture: the uncanny likeness between her features and Keith’s, right down to the dark curved horns and tail they share. The villagers were right: Keith gets his looks from his mother.

“I’m fine, Mom. Shiro—”

“—Isn’t the solution to your loneliness. You got yourself attached to the first person that gave you attention and now you’re suffering for it.”

“He isn’t the first,” Keith grumbles.

“He’s the first you wanted attention from then. Therein lies the problem. You have no experience controlling your nature. You—”

Shiro stumbles and catches himself on a tree. The sound is supernaturally loud in the peaceful forest.

“There’s someone here.” Keith’s mother stands up impossibly fast. She’s tall—taller than Shiro and his instincts label her as a threat.

“Mom, be careful.” Shiro can’t imagine what Keith’s giantess of a mother needs to be careful of—certainly not him. Bears maybe?

Something large and furry hurls itself at Shiro and knocks him to the ground. It’s not a bear—it’s something much bigger.

The wolf licks his face ruining his chances to make a good impression on Keith’s mother.

“Keith—Keith, it’s me, Shiro.” All he can see is the wolf. Keith might be gone. His mother might be getting ready to throw a dagger at him. He noticed there was one strapped to her thigh that looked like the twin to Keith’s dagger.

“Shiro?” Keith packs the word with so many emotions it leaves him dizzy. Hurt, fear, confusion, hope, want—no one has ever said Shiro’s name and meant so much at once.

“This is him? This is Shiro?” She’s upset and Shiro vainly thinks it’s his looks or his missing arm or the fact that he’s covered in wolf drool that she doesn’t approve of but there’s nothing irrational to her panic and anger. “He’s a hunter, Keith. He’ll kill you.”

“No! I would never hurt him!” The wolf is pinning him down, trapping him on the forest floor and stopping him from even being able to see Keith.

“We need to leave,” Keith’s mother says.

“Keith—you know me! I wouldn’t hurt you. I wouldn’t.”

Keith’s silence hurts more than any of the imaginary rejections his anxiety conjures. It hurts because Shiro knows Keith has no reason to believe him and it hurts because the arm has nothing to do with it.

Shiro is a hunter and Keith is what he hunts. In the universe where Shiro is whole and never meets the witch, Keith still runs away from him in fear.

The wolf lets him go and bounds into the forest leaving a trail of destruction Shiro could easily follow.

Shiro doesn’t get up until the sun starts to set.

 

♠️

There’s no one in the cabin.

Shiro expected it but he can’t stop the way the empty home crumbles the last bit of hope he was clinging to.

The cabin has been ransacked. It’s clear Keith packed in a hurry. The bookshelf has been torn apart in a frenzy, every book took off the shelf, and Shiro can imagine only too well what Keith was looking for and couldn’t find.

Fuck, why did he leave the journal with Pidge. He’s certain it belongs to Keith’s father and that Keith didn’t realize it was missing until today. Pidge can’t decipher the names in the journal but she still might be able to piece together that the child in the drawings is Keith from what Shiro has told her about him. Shiro put Keith in danger to satisfy his own curiosity.

It takes Shiro a while to round up the chickens to lock up in the henhouse for the night. Keith let them go and a few roamed into the forest.

The sun goes down but summer is just around the corner so Shiro doesn’t bother starting a fire. He lights Keith’s oil lamps and sets about organizing Keith’s bookshelf and putting away the things scattered about the cabin.

It takes him hours. Shiro freezes at every sound, his heart beating wildly in hope, but Keith never walks through the door. He’s gone and he’s not coming back.

Shiro sleeps on the log couch. He can’t look at the bed without remembering his last night with Keith.

His dreams mock him. He’s taken back to the day he met Keith but this time Keith kisses him and glows: there’s a fire inside of him and he’s transferring it to Shiro. Shiro’s wounds stop bleeding. The dream changes and Keith straddles him. His kisses are hungry and desperate, not the soft, sweet kiss of the forest and in the dream, Shiro returns each kiss with equal force. Keith glows brighter than the fireplace and hot energy flows into Shiro knitting him together, healing wounds he didn’t even know he had.

Shiro traces Keith’s jaw with his right hand and neither of them feels afraid. Keith sucks on Shiro’s clawed fingers and Shiro thinks the red looks beautiful between his shiny lips.

Shiro wakes up hard and wanting. His right arm has activated in his sleep. He didn’t know it could do that. He looks at it, studies the symbols and letters tattooed on it. The familiar revulsion is there but he doesn’t deactivate it. What’s the point of hiding his arm when he’s alone in a forest no visits? He would only be hiding it from himself and he’s done doing that.

 

♠️

The first thing Shiro does every morning is let the chickens out. He saw all of them but Black and Red since he doesn’t have the wolf to help him eat their eggs.

After breakfast, he works in the garden or around the house until the heat becomes unbearable. He spends the hottest part of the day in the water. Even with windows and door open the cabin is too stuffy in the summer heat. It’s not until the evening that he can stand to go back inside and even then he prefers to sit on the porch reading until the sun goes down.

He goes back to the city once to let Lance know he’s moving out. Lance is shocked but doesn’t try to stop him. He takes the journal back from Pidge. She hasn’t finished translating it but she doesn’t argue with him when he says he needs it back. He takes the pages she’s translated and burns them. They’re not his secrets to know.

He’s gotten used to the witch’s arm and he can recognize words from the journal though without Pidge he can’t read them.

Shiro knows not all demons are like Keith and his mother. He’s seen the evidence of that with his own eyes. They kill and destroy and endanger humanity.

He’s still lost interest in hunting them.

The cabin is where he’ll stay. It’s not that he expects Keith to return. He just can’t stand the thought of the cabin rotting away when Keith loved it so much. Maintaining it is the least Shiro can do for making it unsafe for him.

 

♠️

The days are growing shorter. Shiro spends a small part of the day gathering firewood. The winter will bring snow and he doesn’t fancy gathering it then. He understands why Keith built a bathhouse when the stream is right there. The bath can be warmed. Shiro just has to make the effort to fill it with water.

He’ll miss the fresh fruit and vegetables when winter hits. He follows the guides in Keith’s books on how to preserve what he can. He’s getting very good at making jam.

He goes into the village at least once a week, not because he wants to, but because he promises to keep in touch with Pidge. She sends him letters and packages and he writes his own letters to her. It’s a luxury the villagers are fascinated by; none of them can afford the expense of paying a messenger weekly. They seem to think Pidge is a noblewoman after his heart. His attempts to correct the misunderstanding go nowhere.

He understands how Keith’s reputation happened.

He tells the villagers Keith moved and asked if Shiro wanted to take over the cabin. They’re willing to believe his lie. They don’t say it to Shiro’s face but it’s clear Keith’s departure relieves them.

Late into the fall when Shiro goes to meet Pidge’s messenger he finds a familiar face in the village square.

James no longer looks like a light breeze can take him out but he still manages to exude the feeling his mother dresses him but perhaps that’s just his style. Shiro has gotten to know James’s mother a bit and she’s significantly more fashionable than her son.

“Shiro?” James is surprised to see him. “I don’t understand.”

“I’m living in Keith’s cabin. Keith—he left.”

“I know.” James looks to see if anyone is listening to them. When he decides they’re in the clear he says, “I’ve seen him around.”

Shiro crushes Pidge’s letter in his hand. “Where?”

“We shouldn’t talk about this here. I know a place we can go to in the forest. It’s quiet, I used to meet Keith there.”

Jealousy twists Shiro’s guts and makes bile rise in his throat. He has no right to be jealous of James but his emotions don’t care about what’s right they only care that James has a history and friendship with Keith Shiro can never have a part of.

James leads them into a clearing in the forest Shiro’s never noticed before and that annoys him a little. Everything about James annoys him.

“Where did you see Keith?” Shiro demands as soon as James stops walking.

“Around,” James replies. “First, why are you here? Is there something in the forest? Is the village in danger?”

“What? No, I’m not—I’m not hunting anymore. Is Keith okay?”

“You’re not hunting anymore?” James rounds in on him.

Shiro takes a step back in surprise. “It’s not easy hunting alone. A good friend told me I was going to get myself killed and I decided to listen to her advice.” He clears his throat, searching for the right lie. “I wanted to, uh, say hello to Keith but saw his cabin was abandoned and decided to stay.”

“You know there are people in the Garrison that still support you.”

“What?” He has no idea why the conversation is about him—he wants to talk about Keith.

“If you wanted to return I’m sure you could.”

“I’m not interested in the Garrison. Please, I just want to know what’s happened to Keith.”

His desperation must finally get to James. “Fine, but it’s not like I know much. It’s difficult getting close to Keith even when he’s in a good mood and lately he’s definitely not. I’ve seen him around the city a few times. I don’t know if he’s staying there or if he’s just somewhere nearby but considering he would never abandon the wolf I’m guessing it’s the later. We went out for a drink once and he wouldn’t shut up about you. I know something happened between you but like I said, it’s difficult getting close to him. He doesn’t know you’re here, I take it.”

Shiro shakes his head. 

“Didn’t think so. Also, you can stop looking at me like I’ve stolen him from you. We met for drinks only, not whatever you’re thinking.”

Shiro didn’t realize his face was doing any particular expression.

“Any other questions for me? Want to know how my training has been going? How I’m adjusting to life at the Garrison?”

Shiro says nothing.

“You and Keith are both such—” James shakes his head. “Other people exist you know.”

Shiro doesn’t apologize for being concerned about Keith.

James takes the hint and says his goodbyes, leaving Shiro to stew in his thoughts.

Chapter Text

Shiro wakes up to freshly fallen snow and a familiar dagger to his throat. His heart beats wildly, not in fear but in elation.

His joy is short lived. The hand holding the dagger has a magenta tinge.

“What are you doing here?”

Keith’s mother is terrifying up close. Her sharp fangs and claws make the dagger redundant.

“I live here.”

She narrows her eyes and presses the dagger to the point he feels concerned swallowing too strongly will slit his throat. “You’re squatting in a home that doesn’t belong to you.”

“When you see the owner you can let him know.”

She looks at his right arm and frowns. “What happened to your arm?” Despite asking, she doesn’t seem concerned about its presence.

“A witch experimented on me.”

The answer seems to satisfy her. She removes the dagger from his throat—but doesn’t sheath it—and backs away.

“If you’re waiting for my son to return you’re wasting your time. He’s not coming back.”

He feels like a rabbit being looked at by a wolf. She’s the most dangerous demon he’s ever seen. He can see it in the way she holds herself. She’s a fighter, like him, and in possession of full wits. His only respite is her powers, if she tries them, are useless on him. He feels no attraction to women and lust demons can’t manipulate something that doesn’t exist, let alone force feelings that aren’t possible.

“James—one of the villagers—said he’s seen Keith in the city. What I don’t understand is why? It’s not as if Keith likes the city. It’s not even safe for him there. Why didn’t you take him to the other world? What’s he still doing in this one?”

“Keith is half human. He can’t cross over. Did you think I let him grow up alone because I wanted to?” Her fierce expression makes her look even more like Keith.

“I thought he just refused to leave behind the place he grew up in.” It’s easy imagining Keith insisting on staying in the cabin against his mother’s wishes. He has an attachment to the place.

“If I had any other choice I would have taken him with me. But I can’t.”

“Why the city? Why not somewhere secluded?” Shiro hates that Keith is so near the Garrison.

“He’s not in the city. Well, he’s not living there at least. Did you he tell you why he doesn’t like it??”

“He said being around so many people make his skin crawl.”

“That certainly can be an accurate description of the feeling. But it’s not from the number of people. It can happen when we’re around anyone. Being in a city increases the chances. It’s hard to describe but we can feel when a human wants us. It’s not an inherently good or bad feeling, no matter what you humans may say about it. We have our own desires that you can’t overwrite. If the attention is unwanted the sensation will make us feel sick.”

The lore he knows says lust demons are indiscriminate in their appetites and are open to any partner. It fuels the hatred toward them and casts the willingness of their partners into doubt.

As he chews on her words a different horror dawns him, one that makes his stomach churn threateningly. “Keith said he only went to the city once, with his father. How could he have felt anything then? His father died when he was still a child.”

Keith’s mother levels him a look that says everything. “Not every monster has horns. Why do you think I asked his father to raise him in isolation? I knew there would be some that didn’t care that he was a child. Or worse—liked that he was one.”

Shiro recoils in disgust at the implications of her words. “He was a child.” He feels dangerously close to losing the contents of his stomach.

“I know. I have never felt more helpless or more full of rage than when I realized what had happened. I wanted to kill the person that had looked at him that way.”

Shiro wants to do more than just kill them. He wants to make them suffer in every way imaginable and then in ways that can’t be imagined. He understands why people make deals with demons for vengeance.

His disgust and anger turn inward. “Does that mean he felt when I—?” He can’t bring himself to put it into words. “If I had known—”

“Keith isn’t a child anymore. There’s nothing wrong with seeing him that way. And I told you if the attention is wanted it’s an entirely different experience.”

Her words fail to reassure him. He remembers quite clearly ogling Keith from the start and it’s difficult for him to imagine Keith wanted the attention of a wounded hunter more than five years older than him.

Keith’s mother sheaths her dagger. “I’m here to pick up a few of Keith’s things if you don’t mind.” She’s not truly asking for permission but just the hint of it makes him want to laugh at the absurdity of the situation.

“It’s his cabin. Everything in here belongs to him.”

“Even you, I suppose.” She rummages through the wardrobe, pulling out what looks to be Keith’s winter clothes.

His face colors but he otherwise feels he’s able to hide how her words affect him. “I never caught your name.”

“It’s Krolia.”

“Krolia, I have something I’d like to return to Keith. I’m sorry for ever taking it.” He grabs the journal off the bookshelf. There’s recognition in her eyes when he hands it to her.

Krolia packs the book with the rest of Keith’s things. Shiro offers her breakfast before she leaves. She declines, giving him a strange look.

She doesn’t unsheathe the dagger again. It feels like a victory. Of course, he doubts she needs it and her hands are busy packing but he’ll take what he can get.

He spends the rest of the morning shoveling snow and wondering how Keith is faring in the cold weather.

 

♠️

The end comes for Shiro not long after Krolia’s visit. He goes through Keith’s cookbooks in an effort to figure out what to do with the fruits and vegetables he has canned, pickled, and turned into jam. A piece of paper slips out and Shiro recognizes Keith’s handwriting from seeing it scrawled along the margins of his books.

For Shiro.

The paper is folded in half twice. Shiro almost rips it in his haste to read it.

It’s a list of everything Keith wants Shiro to buy from the city. Some of it is ludicrously expensive or impossible to transport without it spoiling but Shiro doesn’t care. He would gladly bring all of it to Keith, no matter what it would take if it meant seeing him again.

Shiro shoves the list into his pocket and packs.

He leaves Black and Red with James’s mother, telling her if he doesn’t come back she can keep them.

Traveling in the snow is a slow, arduous process but it’s not new to him. He normally spends all winter traveling. A little snow doesn’t stop the endless war against demons. It takes him twice the usual amount of time to make it to the city. In winter he has to find shelter at night, no more sleeping in fields and dirt. He spends his nights in barns and caves and once in the farmhouse of an elderly couple.

Near the city not from the Garrison a sudden shock of pain runs through him. He doubles over and catches himself on the ground. The red arm reminds him too much of blood against the snow. He doesn’t remember summoning it.

He takes a deep breath and counts, takes another breath. The pain disappears as suddenly as it came. He can’t trace the source of it.

He starts to stand when pain shoots through him again. His vision goes white and he thinks for a moment it’s the snow he’s seeing after hitting the ground. It’s not. When his vision clears there’s a woman standing in front of him in a dark hooded cloak. Her face is hidden in shadow but he doesn’t need to see it to know who she is.

“We meet again, my dear hunter.” Her harsh, curdling voice sets off a panic inside him. He reaches for his knife, his pistol, his sword, anything—but his body is sluggish and doesn’t want to listen to his commands.

“I’ve been waiting for the arm’s magic to fully take hold of you. You avoided using it for so long I was starting to think it was never going to happen.”

It takes all of Shiro’s concentration but he manages to pull out his knife and point it at the witch.

“What have you done to me?”

Another wave of pain rolls through him, worse than before. He drops his knife in the snow.

“I don’t want to fight you, my dear hunter. That would be a waste of resources.”

“What are you planning?” The pistol and sword still hang off him. He can grab them. He just needs to convince his body to move.

“Nothing that you can begin to understand. But I do need that body of yours to do it. I must say, you might have taken your sweet time to fall under my control but you certainly made up for it.”

The witch is near enough to touch. He could shoot her point blank and end her life.

His arms won’t move at all.

“Give in, hunter. It will make things easier for you.”

“Never.”

She’s close enough that he can see her mouth forming a cruel smile.

“Fine, if you insist.”

She touches him, her hand cold and clammy on his cheek, and pain flows through him, wiping away everything else.

 

♠️

Shiro rejoins the Garrison. It’s been a hard winter for them. They’ve lost many of their younger recruits. Shiro’s experience and skills are welcomed.

He fights the witch’s influence for as long as he can but she’s right—it’s easier giving in. She wants him at the Garrison so that’s where he is. He kills demons and feels nothing. He saves people and feels nothing. His body and mind are tools for the witch and no one even notices. As long as he remains the good soldier they don’t look deeply enough to see past the witch’s facade. She’s a dull, ever-present ache in his mind. He doesn’t have to activate his arm to feel her. Whatever link she created between them is permanent.

His only solace is that Keith is safe.

Then James meddles and ruins everything.

Shiro avoids James as much as he can without calling attention to what he’s doing but the witch catches on and he’s powerless to stop her from speaking to him. With their connection reestablished it’s not long before James invites him to the city. Shiro goes despite every sliver left of his mind screaming against it because he has no choice. James is too transparent—it’s obvious he’s bringing Shiro to Keith. He probably thinks he’s doing Shiro a huge favor. He’s not. The witch is interested in Keith, he can feel it from her, and that makes him afraid—what little of the emotion he can bring up through the numbing haze of her presence in his mind.

Keith waits for them at the market. He sits on a bench with his back turned to them but Shiro could recognize the way he holds himself from miles away. Shiro’s heart sings at the sight of him, breaking through the fog. It’s the most emotion he’s felt in weeks.

Keith’s dark hair peeks out from underneath a winter hat. A scarf wraps around his neck. The jacket he wears is one Krolia took.

James calls out to him and when he turns around Shiro’s heart hammers in his chest. He’s lovely and not even the witch’s powers can stop him from thinking that. When he stands Shiro feels a ghost of amusement: despite how strongly Keith is bundled up he’s wearing shorts, albeit shorts paired with thick socks and waterproof boots that leave only a small strip of skin bare. Shiro’s eyes linger at that pale swatch of skin until the witch snaps them forward in annoyance.

Keith looks at Shiro with open affection. It pierces through the wall the witch built around him. He feels a stirring of that affection in return.

Keith’s joy doesn’t last long. He takes in Shiro’s appearance—his Garrison jacket and boots, the hunter’s weapons strapped on to him—and shuts down.

The wall around Shiro repairs itself until he’s barely able to feel the pain Keith’s rejection causes.

Keith turns to James. Shiro forgot he was there. “Who’s your friend?”

“Don’t bother pretending Shiro isn’t the hunter you patched up and won’t shut up about.”

Keith clenches his jaw. “You’re always meddling. People don’t like meddlers.” He scowls but his heart isn’t into it. He keeps glancing at Shiro. If it’s meant to be discreet, it’s not.

“It’s called friendship, you ungrateful cur.” Keith takes a swing at him but James is ready for it and bends out of the way. “Finally my training at the Garrison is paying off.”

Keith steps on his foot.

“If that’s how you’re going to repay me for doing something nice, I’m never bothering again.” He nods at Shiro.”I’m going to get something to eat. You two should talk. Or not. See if I care.”

Shiro stands there, unable to move. The witch is fully in control, watching Keith through his eyes.

“You’re hunting again?” Keith’s voice is small and unsure. It sounds nothing like when he talks to James.

“I decided eradicating demons is an important mission to continue,” he hears himself say.

Keith flinches.

“Of course you’re different, Keith. You’re special.” He grabs Keith’s wrist. His grip his bruising. The witch takes full advantage of how thin Keith’s wrist is in his hands. “We should talk somewhere more private.”

He drags Keith from the marketplace. He wants Keith to fight him off. He has to be hurting him with the way he yanks him around, his grip tight and cruel.

Instead of complaining about the discomfort Shiro must be causing him Keith says something that makes the witch pause and look at him in confusion. “Shiro, are you hurt? You seem like you’re in pain.”

“I’m fine, Keith.” The witch continues leading them through a maze of alleyways. It’s difficult for Shiro to concentrate on where they’re going. She’s purposefully obscuring it from him. “Tell me, where’s Krolia?” Krolia’s name flows too easily on his tongue. He’s not sure how much the witch knows about Keith or Krolia from his memories but he gets the distinct impression that’s not where she’s pulling from. The witch knows Krolia.

Keith bristles. “What? Why are you asking about Krolia?”

The witch is irritated by his reaction. “No reason,” she tries to smooth over. “I just wanted to see her. It’s been some time since we last spoke.”

“I don’t know where she is. On the other side, I suppose.” The witch is distracted and Shiro finally gets a sense of where they’re going. They’re taking a winding path but it’s obvious to him now that they’re heading to the Garrison. A real sense of fear fills him. He tries to fight the witch. She blasts him with pain in that nasty way of hers and he can’t escape it. Ice burns his limbs but she continues to move them without care. Each step she takes with his body is agonizing.

“True, your tainted blood doesn’t allow you to cross. A shame.”

“Shiro, what’s going on? I—you’re hurt. You need to stop, whatever you’re doing, it’s hurting you.”

Keith digs his heels in. The witch can’t move. Keith is stronger than Shiro. The witch was only able to drag Keith along because he allowed it.

The witch’s anger spikes. “You talk too much.” She catches Keith by surprise and pushes him against a wall with all of Shiro’s strength. There’s a loud crack when his skull hits the brick. Keith crumples to the ground.

Shiro wants to scream. He’s a passenger in his body but the witch’s grip on his emotions slips away.

Get away from Keith! GET AWAY! GET AWAY! GET AW—

“Shut up, or I’ll cut off one of his pretty little legs you wouldn’t stop admiring.” She grips the pommel of Shiro’s sword in warning.

Shiro hates her more than he’s hated anyone in his life. He wants to tear her pieces. He wants to watch her burn. He wants her to suffer.

She struggles to carry Keith with one arm and settles for dragging him. She makes sure Shiro gets a good look at the trail of blood Keith’s head leaves on the snow.

There’s a guard at the Garrison’s gate. He’s one of the newer recruits, younger than Keith.

“Help me,” the witch says with Shiro’s voice. “We were attacked by demons. I need help carrying him. He’s injured.”

The guard runs to them. Shiro knows him. He joined the Garrison with the purest of intentions, different from Shiro’s thirst for vengeance, Matt’s steadfast following of his father’s footsteps, or James’s desire for glory and purpose. He’s the kind of boy that just wants to protect people.

The witch unsheathes Keith’s dagger and hurls it at him. It sinks between his brows with a sickening squelch. The boy falls over dead.

His blood dyes the snow deep red.

The witch shouts in perfect panic. “Someone help! Help! A guard’s been killed!”

The gates open. Members of the Garrison approach cautiously, their weapons drawn.

Iverson points a crossbow at them. “Shirogane, what’s going on?”

“I saw this boy lurking around the Garrison.” She points at where Keith is still knocked out cold. “I just thought he was curious, a possible recruit checking out the place. But he ran toward the guard and killed him with his dagger. I managed to take him by surprise and subdue him. Sir, I think he’s a demon.”

“A demon?” Iverson looks at Keith’s very human form in disbelief.

“Yes sir. I believe this form is a disguise. I was able to glimpse his true one for a moment when I surprised him. He’s likely a lust demon.”

“They are known to shapeshift to blend in,” Dr. Holt says. He looks at Keith curiously, like he’s an animal to be dissected. “There are ways we can test to be sure.”

“Shirogane, take the demon to Dr. Holt’s lab.” Iverson looks at the dead boy on the ground with sorrow. “The rest of you help me with this poor boy’s body.”

The witch is delighted with how well her plan is working. Shiro commands respect in the Garrison. Iverson and Dr. Holt believe him without question.

A wave of nausea hits Shiro when they reach Dr. Holt’s laboratory. It reminds him of the witch’s lair. She agrees. She’s at ease around his equipment and potions. Dr. Holt researches ways to protect and heal hunters and ways to prevent and harm demons. All of Shiro’s weapons are laced with Dr. Holt’s poisons.

Dr. Holt is as messy as his daughter. He rummages through his drawers until he finds the potion he’s looking for.

“This will do,” Dr. Holt says. “It’s harmless to humans but will burn a demon.”

Dr. Holt takes off Keith’s jacket and pulls down his shirt, exposing his shoulder. He pours the potion over his skin and Shiro hopes Keith’s human side will negate it.

His hopes are unanswered.

Keith wakes up screaming. The potion sizzles as it burns him. The smell is awful. The witch notices Shiro’s discomfort and takes a deep whiff of it. His anger and frustration boil over.

GET OUT OF MY HEAD! GET OUT!

The witch doesn’t bother sending pain through him. She looks at the horrifying burn mark on Keith’s skin and the potion that caused it, the threat clear, and it’s just as effective at shutting Shiro up.

Keith’s glamor is gone. The curving horns on his head gleam in the lab’s light and his tail hangs limply off the table they’ve placed him on. If there are other signs of his heritage they’re too subtle for Shiro to notice in one glance. His skin notably stays the same pale human hue.

“So you are a demon then?” Dr. Holt tilts his head, confused by how underneath the glamor Keith still looks remarkably human.

“Where am I?” Keith struggles to get off the table. “What did you do to me?”

The witch holds Shiro’s pistol to his head. “Don’t move, demon.”

“Now, now. We’ll be the ones asking the question here.” Dr. Holt stands on the opposite side of the table from Shiro. “First, why were you skulking around Garrison? Were you trying to find a way to get in? Are there more of you?”

“The Garrison?” Keith pales. “That’s where you brought me? Why?” He stares up at Shiro and the witch doesn’t like the way his eyes search them.

“Answer Dr. Holt’s questions, demon.” The witch keeps the pistol steadily aimed at Keith.

“Dr. Holt? You helped train Shiro in the Garrison. You’re like a father to him. There’s something wrong with him, can’t you see it?”

“Shut up!” The witch snaps, but it’s too late. The gears in Dr. Holt’s head are turning.

“Do you two know each other, Shirogane?”

“No!” the witch denies.

Keith talks over her. “You have a son and daughter. Shiro’s told me a little about them.”

Dr. Holt looks torn. He isn’t a cruel man. Threatening and torturing Keith for information is out of his comfort zone already. He isn’t a stupid man either. The witch’s impersonation of Shiro hasn’t been without flaws, combined with Keith’s unusual appearance it’s clear he’s grown wary of the situation.

“We should get Iverson or Sanda in here. Then we can sort this all ou—”

The witch loses her patience and shoots at Dr. Holt. The sound is deafening in the small laboratory.

The last shards of Shiro’s conciseness break. Keith was right—Dr. Holt is like a father to him. He believed in him when no one else would. He turned Shiro from a poor orphaned boy consumed with thoughts of revenge into a man with a bigger purpose than his own pain and hurt.

Katie will never forgive him. She loves her father with all her heart. She spent her childhood afraid his every mission would be his last. She cried in happiness when he decided to focus on his experiments. He isn’t supposed to be in danger anymore.

Keith knocks the pistol out of Shiro’s hands and kicks him across the room.

Dr. Holt stirs groggily on the floor. The bullet missed him, grazing Keith’s shoulder instead when he pushed Dr. Holt out of the way.

“Shiro, it’s going to be okay.”

Shiro meets his eyes and knows Keith can see him. The witch is still in his mind but for once she’s the one dampened and struggling to take control.

“Keith—I don’t want to hurt you. I don’t want to hurt anyone. You need to—the witch she’s in my mind. Please, Keith. I can’t watch her hurt you.”

The witch is waking up. He’s slipping under her control again. He takes the weapons off his belt and tosses them across the room. It will give Keith better odds at defeating him.

Because that’s what he’s made his mind up about. He would rather Keith kill him than have to watch as she tortures Keith with his hands.

Weaponless the witch makes up her mind and summons Shiro’s right arm.

It’s unfair. Keith is a demon but he lacks their full physical capabilities. He has no talons to counter the ones on Shiro’s arm. He’s strong and quick but so is Shiro and Shiro’s body is used to opponents stronger and quicker than both of them.

They fight and it’s nothing like their play fighting in the garden. Shiro goes for his weak spot. He tries to slash at his throat and misses, tearing the burned and bloody skin at his shoulder instead.

Keith screams and pushes Shiro off with ferocious strength. Shiro hits his head on a cabinet and the witch loses focus.

“Keith, now!” He holds the witch back with all of his strength and waits for Keith to end it.

Keith moves as if to strike him. Shiro flinches on reflex—despite everything he’s still afraid to die. But the blow never comes.

Keith grasps Shiro’s red hand and sends a searing hot flame through him. It travels from where they touch to every part of his body. The flame wraps around Shiro’s mind, warm and comforting. It feels like sleeping in the cabin wrapped in blankets as the fireplace burns behind him.

The witch screams—in his head, with his lungs. She screams and screams and the ice cold pain she tries to control Shiro with evaporates.

Keith glows from the fire within him. His eyes are miniature suns that Shiro can’t look away from. Shiro wants to kiss him.

Keith smiles and grows more beautiful with the action. “Found you.”

Dr. Holt stands and watches them carefully. He makes no move to interrupt them, even as Shiro keeps screaming. The witch manages to spare a flash of anger at him in her ceaseless hatred of Keith.

The markings on Shiro’s arm fade away, leaving behind unblemished red flesh.

The witch’s screams end abruptly.

Keith stops glowing. He collapses, his energy spent. Shiro catches him.

“Keith?”

He opens his eyes weakly. “Shiro.” He raises his hand and cups Shiro’s jaw. He isn’t able to hold his arm up for long. It drops down with a thud.

Dr. Holt approaches them. “The bullet.” He doesn’t need to elaborate—Shiro understands what he means. It’s not practical to reload a pistol in the middle of a fight. Hunters have to make their one shot count. The bullet is coated in Dr. Holt’s poisons.

“Keith, stay with me.” Keith is alarmingly light in his hands, barely weighing a thing. “There has to be something we can do for him. Some potion that can save him.”

“There’s nothing here that can help a demon,” Dr. Holt says gently, “only a human.”

“You don’t understand—he’s half-human,” Shiro says desperately. “There’s something that might work.”

“Half-human, a quarter-human—it doesn’t matter. His biology isn’t reacting like a human’s. I don’t know how to treat him.”

The despair that fills him is worse than the hopelessness he felt under the witch’s control. Keith is dying and there’s nothing he can do about it. Keith is dying and it’s his fault.

Keith saved Shiro three times. The first time was when he healed Shiro’s wounds in the forest, saving his body. The second time was when he stopped Shiro from killing Dr. Holt, saving his soul. And the third time was when he expelled the witch, saving his mind.

Shiro can’t even manage to save Keith one time.

Keith looks up at him like he knows what he’s thinking and won’t hear of it. His voice is dim, nearly snuffed out just like the fire that normally burns brightly within him is gone. “Shiro, I—”

Whatever he wants to say is lost when Shiro silences him with a kiss.

Shiro pours all of his feelings of want and desire into the kiss. He shares the way Keith’s beauty ensnares him. He thinks of the things he wants to do to Keith, then thinks of the things he wants Keith to do to him. He holds nothing back. The basest of his desires are there for Keith to feel. He kisses Keith with hunger and want.

Warmth flows out of Shiro. Keith’s tongue dances in his mouth. He kisses back greedily, taking all that Shiro offers. Shiro is happy to give it to him. The taste of Keith is addicting. He licks into Keith’s mouth. He dreams of touching Keith anywhere, everywhere.

Keith’s fire grows stronger.

Shiro grows colder.

He can barely return Keith’s kisses, can barely breathe. It doesn’t stop him from trying to chase after Keith’s mouth.

He wants this forever. He wants this and more. He wants to spend the rest of his days with Keith, neither of them ever alone again. He wants to wake up in Keith’s arms, go to bed with Keith’s taste in his mouth.

Keith pushes him away.

Shiro thinks he hears his name. He’s not sure if it’s coming from Keith or Dr. Holt. Maybe it’s both of them calling after him.

His can’t open his eyes, can’t open his ears. He’s floating out of his body. His world is darkness and silence.

He thinks nothing and feels nothing and it’s nice instead of terrifying.

 

♠️

Everything fucking hurts.

He’s not yet thirty but he understands what it means to be ancient and withered. He feels like an old man that spent the better part of his youth getting his bones broken, repeatedly, and is paying the price for that in his old age. He thinks he’s in a bed but he can’t remember how to open his eyes to check.

“He’s awake!” Pidge shouts.

Shiro loves her but he wishes she wasn’t so loud. Why talk at all actually—can’t she just hold up a sign?

“I’ll go get Keith,” Krolia’s smooth voice answers.

Shiro’s imagination is funny. Pidge and Krolia? What a duo to hallucinate. He can see it now—Pidge’s tiny bottled fury to Krolia’s gigantic, steadfast rage. Together they fight crime. He thinks there’s a story like that in Keith’s collection.

“He’s laughing at nothing!” It feels like Pidge is yelling directly in his ear. “Shiro, are you still in there? It’s me, Pidge—Katie. You remember me, right? Keith, I think you made his mind go funny.”

“Shiro?” A honey-sweet voice breaks through Pidge’s panicking.

Shiro opens his eyes and is hit by a sense of déjà vu. The world is bright, he can barely move from pain, and he’s in an unfamiliar bed with a pair of familiar bright eyes looking at him in concern.

“Keith?”

Keith flings himself onto the bed and wraps his arms around Shiro’s neck. The painful hold is worth it to feel the warmth that rolls off him. Shiro returns the hug with all the strength he can muster, holding him tight against his chest.

“Oh, so you remember Keith then. Just not me.”

Shiro pulls away from Keith just enough to breathe and look at Pidge. Keith clings to him and Shiro imagines if Keith had claws they would be digging into his skin, refusing to let go. Shiro pities anyone that attempts to break them apart. “Pidge, what are you doing here?”

“What am I doing here? What am I doing here? This is my house. You’re in my bed!”

She’s probably telling the truth. The room is cluttered with books and gadgets and what looks like Pidge’s entire wardrobe on the floor. “Hmm.”

“That’s a very judgmental sound.”

“No judgment. I can just see how this is your room.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Pidge puffs up charmingly.

“Thank you, Katie. I don’t know what happened but I know if I’m here and so is Keith you’ve done something I’m grateful for.”

Pidge looks away, but not before he catches the way her eyes water. “Keith saved my father’s life and you’re like family to me. Giving you a place to recover is the least I can do.”

Shiro winces. The happiness bubbling inside him stills. “Pidge, I’m sorry. I—”

Keith cuts him off in a way that allows for no argument. “It wasn’t you. It was the witch.” Keith brings their hands together and Shiro’s arm hums at the contact. “She’ll never hurt you or anyone else again.”

“How can you be certain?”

“Krolia destroyed her.”

Destroyed—not killed.

“A lot has happened,” Pidge says. “Keith is the best one to explain. I’ll give you two some space and check up on Kosmo. I’m charging you if he eats any more of my grain.”

“That’s not his name,” Keith protests feebly.

“Kosmo?”

“Keith’s pet gluttony demon.” She says as she closes the door.

“Pet—what?”

“The wolf,” Keith explains.

“The wolf is a demon?”

Keith raises an eyebrow.

“Okay, yeah, I should have seen that coming.”

Pidge’s bed is a tight fit for two people. Keith is almost entirely on top of him. It should hurt but it doesn’t. The pain from earlier is more of a dull soreness now—or maybe he’s just getting used to it.

Keith is wearing shorts as usual and his legs are bare and long, clinging to Shiro just like Keith’s arms. Shiro brushes the soft skin on Keith’s thighs because he can.

“Stop that,” Keith says weakly. “We’re in Pidge’s bed.”

Shiro pulls his hand back obediently. He imagines Keith’s bare legs wrapping around his head and giving him a view so lovely he could look at it for the rest of his life. Shiro would lick up his thighs, biting the sensitive skin, and mourn that he has to choose which part of Keith to put his mouth on.

“Stop that too. Your thoughts are even worse than your hand.”

Shiro has important questions to ask—like what happened to the witch? How long has he been out? How did they escape? Instead, he asks, “Can you see what I’m thinking?”

Keith shakes his head. His soft hair tickles Shiro’s chin. “No, but I can feel the desire rolling off of you. Why? What were you thinking about?”

Shiro deigns not to answer. “You said the witch was destroyed? Not dead?”

“Dead implies she was alive to begin with. That’s not quite accurate. Her body died a long time ago but she found a way to transfer her soul into a demon. Demons have longer lifespans than humans which meant she didn’t have to find a new host as often. When I said her body died a long time ago—I mean it. She was an Altean alchemist.”

“Altea was destroyed thousands of years ago.” Shiro tries to wrap his head around being alive since the fall of Altea. He can’t. It’s an impossible amount of time that would drive anyone mad. “What would an Altean alchemist want with me?”

“Power, knowledge, revenge. Pick a motive. Mom says the witch blamed demons for Altea’s destruction. I don’t know what your histories say about what happened but they’re probably wrong, along with everything else you know about Altea.”

“It’s mostly a mystery,” Shiro admits, “though there are many theories.”

“The Alteans built a bridge between this world and the world of magic—the demon word. The witch was one of those that helped build it. Before the Alteans our two worlds never interacted. The royal family approved of the project—up until the first human died. No one knows what happened exactly. If it was an accident or purposeful but regardless the royal family wanted to close the bridge. The witch disagreed. She wanted the opposite—she wanted to expand the bridge. She went against the royal family and in the process destroyed Altea and achieved her goal of expanding the bridge—for demons only.”

Keith entwines their hands before continuing.

“Not all Alteans died in the fall. Some were in the demon world when the bridge collapsed and then couldn’t cross back into the human world. The witch’s family were some of those people. Mom thinks that was her goal at some point—to reach her family. But they’re long dead now and the witch must know it. All she could have was revenge. She’s tried everything to open the bridge again. You and I are just the latest in her attempts. Mom has come across her throughout the centuries.”

“How did Krolia destroy her?”

“She found the witch not far from the Garrison. The witch needed to stay close to fully control your body. She was in a weakened state from everything that had happened. It was easy for Mom to rip apart her soul.”

Shiro isn’t a kind enough person to feel sorry for the witch. “How did Krolia find her in the first place?”

“It’s what she does—sort of. She’s a ranger. It’s kind of like the demon equivalent of a hunter. Demons can cross over to the human world but only rangers are allowed to. Rangers capture those that have strayed over. Some of those are demons that have crossed with a purpose but many are just animals, like a bear or a wolf that wanders where it shouldn’t.”

“Huh. That’s neat.” And terrifying—it means she’s actually trained at fighting. “How did we end up at Pidge’s house?”

“Dr. Holt,” Keith says with a fondness Shiro isn’t expecting. “He said you were cursed by a demon but with the help of—I think it’s quintessence?—he was able to free you. He also told the Garrison I’m human.”

“You are human,” Shiro rationalizes, “and the witch’s soul was in a demon. From a certain perspective, he didn’t lie.”

Keith scoffs. “I’m sure that’s what he meant.”

Keith shifts in Shiro’s lap to sit up. Keith’s new position of straddling him is terribly distracting but thoughts of Pidge’s wrath keeps him in check. “Will you return to Garrison when you’re healed?”

“No, no more killing. I’m done with that—have been done with that for a while.”

“What will you do then?”

Shiro breathes him in. He smells like fire. Shiro used to think it was the scent of the cabin clinging to him but he knows better now.

“I know of a place a few days from here. I think I’ll stay there until I can figure out what to do next. I’m a bit tired of the city.”

“What a coincidence,” Keith says airly, “I’m tired of the city myself and have been looking to move.”

“We’re alike in mind then. Hopefully, Mrs. Griffin won’t mind the two of us living in her barn.”

Keith’s laugh fills the room. Every curve and sharp line of his feature are blinding in their beauty when he’s happy.

“Unless you know of somewhere else to stay?” Shiro asks.

“I have a cabin in the forest actually. You’re welcome to stay as long as you like.”

“That sounds wonderful.” Shiro means it.

 

♠️

Once upon a time, there was an alchemist named Honerva. She was talented and clever with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. She created a portal that connected her mundane world with a world of magic.

For many years, the portal was enough. But the royal family began to guard it closely, making her research difficult. An accident happened—the death of some girl or boy—and it was blamed on the creatures from the other side of the portal. The portal had to be closed.

She wouldn’t allow it.

The king imprisoned her but not before she set her plan to expand the portal in motion. He tried to stop it. His daughter crossed into the other world to help.

They failed. The portal expanded, but not in the way the witch intended. It destroyed where the human city once stood, killing all but the witch who had found a way to transfer her soul in time.

The transfer was only partially successful. She had a family on the other side but she didn’t remember them. Her memories were scrambled. It would take centuries for her to piece together who and what she was and by then all those she loved were dead.

The body she stole didn’t let her cross over. She searched for a way to open the portal again. Killed, tortured, experimented. Sometimes she was Honerva, sometimes she was Haggar—the first demon woman she anchored her soul to. It didn’t make a difference in the end. Alchemist or witch, human or demon—she was cruel either way, having long lost sight of what it meant to love or care for another person.

 

♠️

As a side effect of using his life force to heal Keith, Shiro’s hair goes silver. All of it. The hair on his head, his eyelashes, his arms, his beard—even the hair between his legs. Every single bit is a silvery-white color.

“People are going to think I’m your grandfather,” Shiro laments when he sees himself in a mirror.

“They probably thought that before your hair went white, old timer.”

“Watch it.”

Keith runs a hand through Shiro’s hair; Shiro shivers at the contact. “It suits you. You should see yourself in the moonlight. You don’t look of this world.”

“Is that a good thing?”

Keith kisses his neck. “Yes.”

The physical recovery is easy. A few days of bed rest are all he needs before he’s ready to make the journey to the cabin. He barely cries when the wolf knocks him into the snow.

Healing his mind is trickier.

In his nightmare he watches the bullet kill Keith instantly. His own hands torture Keith until Keith’s mind is broken. Dr. Holt dies when Keith is too slow to save him.

He wakes up in a panic but his mind settles when he sees Keith alive and well next to him.

More difficult to contend with are his dreams of killing the young guard. For that death, there is no escape, no different reality to wake up to. It’s a pain Keith can’t heal with his powers, only comfort Shiro through when it flares up.

The cabin is as Shiro left it. No wild animals have gotten into it and no humans (or demons) have taken anything from it but it doesn’t feel like home until Keith negotiates for his chickens back. Mrs. Griffin drives a hard bargain but in exchange for Keith and Shiro promising to help patch up her barn in the spring she allows them to take Red and Black back.

They use the firewood Shiro collected in the summer. In no time the familiar sweltering heat returns and Keith removes his layers.

His bare legs catch Shiro’s eyes as always and Shiro is hit with the knowledge that Keith must know this. Suddenly, the way Keith sits on the bed with his legs bent in front of him and his shorts riding up feels purposeful.

“This whole time you’ve known I was looking at you,” Shiro says, questioning more than accusing. “It didn’t bother you?”

“I was used to it. The villagers, James—I didn’t live in total isolation. I knew what it felt like to be lusted after and I hated it. It made me feel like an object. But with you it was different. You liked to stop your thoughts. Lust wasn’t the only thing on your mind when you saw me. I could tell when you talked to me it was with genuine interest. It made me want to tempt you, to see if I could make you give in.” Keith flushes. “It was the first time I’d ever felt like that. I let the feeling get to me—you remember the garden? I wanted your hands on me and I did everything in my power to get you to give in. I didn’t know about your arm and when I saw it I thought you were like me. I didn’t realize it was a curse.”

Keith hugs his knees to his chest. “I’m sorry. I realize now what I did was exactly what everyone accuses lust demons of—seducing people against their will. I told Mom a little of what I’d done and she wouldn’t stop lecturing me—that’s where I was that evening. I didn’t want to listen. I told her she was wrong—that I wasn’t doing anything bad. I was so upset that when I was heading back I didn’t pay attention to where I was going and fell into the river with the wolf.”

Shiro squeezes onto the bed next to him. Keith’s powers are a complication in their relationship but he does know one thing for sure.

“It wasn’t against my will,” Shiro says. Keith tilts his head, waiting for him to continue. “Trust me, I know a thing or two about mind control. This wasn’t—and isn’t like that. Your power—when it’s active—is like being given permission to act. Maybe I wouldn’t have acted without it, but that was from fear.” Shiro holds out his red arm in front of them. “In the garden, you just took that fear away.”

“I never want to take your will away, Shiro,” he says fiercely. “Never.”

There’s a rawness to him that makes Shiro ache. If Shiro’s fear is his mind being controlled, Keith’s fear is the other side of that. Shiro can’t relate to it, but he sympathizes with it. How is Keith supposed to know if Shiro feelings are true or if he’s just acting out of pure lust? Shiro knows his own mind but Keith doesn’t.

“You’re blunt to a fault but never cruel.” Shiro holds Keith’s head between his hands, not allowing him to look away. “You’re willing to call me out on my stubbornness. You’re a hard-worker but understand when it’s time to rest. You saved me even though all you knew about me was that I hunted your kind. All of that is why I care for you. Do you understand? What I feel for you starts there. That you’re the most beautiful man I’ve ever met is just a bonus.” He says the last part lightly, almost a joke even though it’s true.

Keith stares at him in surprise. “I—you don’t have to flatter me. I know I have a gigantic scar on my face. And claw marks on my back. And now this mess on my shoulder.”

“If you think your scars are supposed to make you less attractive I have news for you—they’re doing the opposite for me.” He points to his nose. “Besides, we match. See?”

Keith traces the bridge of Shiro’s nose where there’s a deep scar from one of his first hunts.

“I want to touch you. Can I?” Keith asks.

“Please,” Shiro begs.

Shiro sinks into the soft mattress, lays head on a plush pillow. Keith climbs on top of him and kisses him breathless. It reminds Shiro of his dream that wasn’t a dream—but this time Keith doesn’t glow and that’s okay with him. He likes this Keith too, this Keith that kisses him because he wants to, not because Shiro’s life is in danger. He traces Keith’s spine as Keith licks into his mouth like he is trying to devour Shiro whole. He’s hot in the literal sense. Fire is his element.

Keith’s small breathy moans fill the cabin.

“Keith—your glamor. You don’t need it.”

Keith hesitates but he must see something in Shiro’s eyes or feel the way Shiro is hard with want as Keith grinds down on top of him.

He releases his glamor. The horns curve and grow from his head. His tail flicks behind him, the tip of it is shaped like a spade.

“Keith, I want—” He cuts off. Putting what he wants into words feels impossible. He wants everything. He needs little. He could get off from just Keith’s incessant kisses and the friction on his cock as Keith’s ass grinds down on it, both of them still clothed.

“What do you want, Shiro?” Keith asks as if he knows the answer.

“Everything. I want everything.”

“Then you’ll have it.” Shiro believes him.

Keith pulls Shiro’s pants down and the hunger in his eyes when he sees Shiro’s cock is a type of flattering that would make a different man arrogant. With Shiro, it brings him a mixture of embarrassment and satisfaction. Keith licks delicately at the head of his cock, lapping up the precum already spilled. Shiro tangles his hands in Keith’s hair, brushing against Keith’s horns as he does. Keith seems to like that. He hums something soft and unrecognizable and the vibrations send a thrill through Shiro’s cock.

Shiro touches Keith’s horns more deliberately, unsure of what Keith can feel. Whatever he feels he must like. His long eyelashes flutter as he sinks down on Shiro’s cock, his lips stretching obscenely around it.

Shiro resists the urge to raise his hips but Keith must sense it through his powers or simply because Shiro’s desires are that obvious because his hands find Shiro’s hips to pull at lightly. He meets Shiro’s gaze and nods—or tries to. His mouth is stuffed with Shiro’s cock; Shiro feels the gesture more than he sees it.

Shiro makes a tentative thrust into Keith’s mouth, not wanting to hurt him, but Keith’s face is one of bliss. He thrusts harder, faster, but Keith’s enjoyment never wavers—and he is enjoying it. The more Shiro lets go, the more Keith moans in pleasure. He never gags or chokes, not even when Shiro hits the back of his throat, and Shiro thinks that must be the lust demon part of him. He was made to take Shiro’s cock.

Keith senses Shiro’s release is near before Shiro does. He doesn’t let Shiro pull him away, swatting Shiro’s hands away when he tries to lift Keith off. He nearly purrs when Shiro’s seed spills down his throat. He swallows it, not letting a single drop go to waste, and licks his lips as if searching for more when Shiro is finally able to gently push him away.

“Keith, you didn’t have to—”

“—I wanted to.”

Keith is still dressed which feels sinful on Shiro’s part to allow. He remedies that quickly and tosses off the shirt he was still wearing too for good measure. Keith’s eyes burn him as he takes in Shiro’s body—the want in them mirror Shiro’s own at seeing Keith fully.

Shiro feels for where Keith’s tail grows from the base of his spine. His tail is hotter than the rest of him, impossible as that seems, and the control he has over it makes Shiro nearly dizzy from possibility.

That’s for another time. Later, maybe. For now, Keith straddles his thigh and ruts against him in complete abandon. His lack of shame is Shiro’s new favorite thing about him.

Keith’s dark hair curls messily from where Shiro was pulling on them, adding wildness to his features. Shiro kisses him and tastes himself on Keith’s tongue. He isn’t lying when he says he wants everything from Keith. He wants his body and soul, not just to fuck him but to love him and cherish him and protect him. This cabin can be their home, a place always waiting for them, but Shiro doesn’t want to lock Keith away from the world. He wants Keith to see everything that has been denied to him for so long. Shiro will fight anyone and anything that makes Keith feel like he can’t live comfortably in his own skin. If anyone dares to want him, Shiro will want him harder. He’ll drown out their shallow lust with his own. He’ll let out that part of him that wants to worship every square of Keith’s body. He’ll pour his lust into Keith until Keith is drunk with power.

“Shiro—it’s too much. I can feel it all.” His skin glows faintly.

“Good.”

Shiro jerks Keith’s cock once and that’s all it takes for Keith to spill into his hand.

He wonders if he can make Keith come from his thoughts alone. He vows to try.

Keith kisses him sloppily, all his usual finesse gone. It’s more than just the haze of his afterglow—he really is drunk on the feelings Shiro poured into him. His eyes are gold with power.

“Rest,” Shiro tells him.

Keith obeys, curling sweetly on him. Shiro doesn’t need a single blanket with the furnace that is Keith.

Shiro dreams of the forest. He kisses Keith under the trees, in the garden, in the stream. They’re not dreams of things that have happened—they’re a promise Shiro makes to himself.

 

♠️

Mrs. Griffin promises to take care of their chickens like they’re her own. Shiro’s believes her—that’s not the part he’s worried about. He’s worried she won’t return them when they’re back. They patched up her farmhouse and barn, but he still thinks it might not be enough to guarantee she won’t insist on keeping them.

Still, they hardly have a choice. With spring here they’ve decided to do a little traveling, see where the wind blows them. Keith hasn’t seen much of the world and Shiro’s travels were never for fun. It will be a trip full of firsts for both of them. Keith is excited to see new places, try new foods, and interact with the world he was never allowed to. Shiro is excited to see Keith in new places, kiss Keith in new places, and fuck Keith in new places.

Shiro can sense underneath Keith’s excitement he’s nervous people will overwhelm him with their wants. Shiro won’t let that happen. His lust for Keith is unmatchable. After all, his desire is paired with love and that can’t be beaten.

Shiro takes Keith’s hand. The wolf slips out of their world but Keith promises he always returns when he’s called.

“Ready?” Shiro asks.

“Yes,” Keith answers.

They leave the village behind.