Among the molten brimstone, down a corridor shadowed with slow-morphing shapes and licking flame that scores white heat through stony ground into the pads of any bare feet foolish enough to step over it, through a dark tunnel of hard rock, jagged and caged together, through the saturated oranges and reds hued in smoky air and the endless cells occupied by men whose screams meld together into a single, deafening groan of perpetual agony, a demon called only by the moniker “Shirogane” bows. His head presses against the simmering stone at the base of a wide throne, inches from the clawed feet of a monster that watches him with small, sharp eyes and broad rows of jagged, spaded teeth.
The creature above him barks a laugh, the reverberation of phlegm twanged in its throat and the baritone of its voice bounding between the narrow walls of this impromptu throne room causing Shirogane to grit his teeth, to screw his eyes shut tighter as he struggles to stay bent downward in this uncomfortably contorted position. His blistered skin aches where it makes contact with the boiling stone underneath him. He feels sweat welled at his hairline, feels his breath pinned at the close of his throat, clogged with black ash and eternally burned, and starving for even the smallest hint of fresh oxygen that he knows he’ll never find in a place like this.
Hell, he knows, has always been unforgiving. There’s exactly one thing about this place that Shirogane doesn’t find absolutely miserable and horrible and deranged, but right now, he tries his best not to think about it. Tries, instead, to remind himself in an endless mantra of everything that he’s hoping to escape. The painful screams, the volcanic ash perpetually clinging black to his skin and the inside of his nose and throat. The saturated colors that spark migraines just between his eyes and thrum achingly at the base of his skull. The pain and the violence and the eternity of it all: Shirogane decides that he’d rather cease to exist than to exist in endless suffering. He decides that even if his master above him chooses to discard his pitiful request and maim him instead, he’s made peace with it. His master would be doing him a favor. He’d be releasing him, perhaps not in the way that he’d originally intended, but releasing him from this terrible place all the same.
He knows that this could easily result in his death, but from there, he doesn’t know where he might go. He thinks about the ribbons that his master’s claws could make out of him, how many before him have been pulverized under those powerful, heavy feet. Tears well at the corners of his eyes, fearful and silly emotional buildup that he still hasn’t learned to quell after many hundreds of years spent locked up in a place that should have long since cauterized those old wounds and made him hard, like the brimstone. Like his master’s thick skin, like everyone else who’s suffered here before him, as though he’s just never learned how to do this whole demon thing right. As though, maybe, there is no place for him on Earth, he’s learned. God turned his back on a man who discounted his name for frivolous Earthly tethers, and even Hell, even in the bowels of this molten, writhing, living representation of all things unholy, Shirogane finds that he doesn’t belong here either. Someone else might tell him that crying is still proof that he’s maintained his humanity, that there’s still redeemable goodness left inside of him, that not belonging to this specific circle of the underworld is nothing but a blessing, but—
He grits his teeth. Guilt roils within him. He can’t allow himself to dither in that uncertainty right now. He can’t let himself continue to be tied here by guilt or uncertainty. If he’s going to escape from this place, he needs to know with absolution that it’s worth anything that he might sacrifice to make it happen.
The demon named Zarkon, a monolith of a monster currently charged with running this specific circle of Hell, gazes down at him with a grin carved into the hard scales of his face like the jagged teeth of a jack-o-lantern lit up from the inside. That light glows from the deep caverns of his eyes, ignited as though they’re hollow recesses illuminated by white flame. They’re glowing brightly in the dank lightlessness of the narrow throne room, distant from the screaming of fresh souls taking tormented refuge on the torture tables where Shiro spent the better part of a century before finding himself here, under Zarkon’s charge. He’s been a decent pawn, carried out the guilty work that this once-man has charged him with. Holed himself away when possible and maintained even the smallest ounces of humanity that he can possibly grasp in a place like this.
But now, today—
“You want to be reborn, of all things, as a mortal human?” Another bark of a laugh. “Shirogane, what could possibly be better than this?”
The answer, of course, is most things. Anything. Literally, anything that isn’t this. But Shirogane doesn’t voice as much. He maintains his silence, muscles poised as though at any moment now he might have to dodge a blow of Zarkon’s wide foot dropped down like a hefty mace against his bent spine.
They sit for another long moment in silence, Shirogane resisting the urge to lift his head and study Zarkon’s stony face, Zarkon, in turn, listening to the cacophony of endless screaming in the echoed walls of their cavern. He drums his mighty fingers against the stone armrest of his throne, and Shirogane can feel him turn his head, can hear the displacement of the air in his ears, grown sensitive to even the slightest amount of movement that might result in danger over the many horrific years spent rotting in this treacherous place. The wench tucked against the shadowed cavern wall just to Zarkon’s right hisses a breath that must be words, but Shirogane can’t place them together coherently. Haggar, a she-demon cloaked in a large hood that shadows her own glowing pair of eyes, speaks in stilted, hushed murmurs to Zarkon that are lost among the wash of screams crying out, of sobs baying in the heavy heat and the low-hanging smoke, and Shirogane’s own organic heart pounding like a hammer striking stone in his throbbing chest. And Shirogane prays privately, to a God that he knows has long since stopped listening, begs for a reprieve, for mercy, for any assistance that he can get now, when he knows that the chance of a positive outcome is so bleak. He feels the sweat, beaded at his brow, slide slowly over the length of his stiff neck, over his throat, over the Adam’s apple that bobs as he draws in a thick swallow.
“You’ve caught me in a good mood today, Shirogane,” Zarkon tells him, voice booming, resonate, everywhere. “I’ll play your game, but only for my own amusement. You must put on a good show for me, Shirogane. You must follow my guidelines perfectly, or I’ll drag you screaming back to this place and you’ll never be afforded another opportunity to escape. There are rules to follow and they won’t be fair. I don’t care if you think me callous. It’s no fun playing a wagering a bet if you find yourself starting on equal footing, is there?”
Shirogane stays silent. The base of his horns ache. They feel as though they might tear apart from his skin. His spine tingles, the moisture in his eyes spills over the lids, warm and itchy on his cheeks. His breath wavers, and he tries desperately not to shake too hard. Zarkon’s sizable hand drops heavily against the armrest of his throne, Shirogane twitches, screws his eyes shut tighter. Feels himself slipping in terror into a half-aware state that he finds himself in often when the agony of this place becomes too much.
But he steadies himself, forces his mind to stay present. He focuses on the pain in his horns, the discomfort of his contorted muscles, the burning of the stone on his skin. How uncomfortable the floor feels against his bare knees, and stabbing into his palms. How terribly this place reeks of charred flesh and putrid rot and how desperately he needs to breathe clean air.
Zarkon’s voice echoes around him, slow and resolute, graveled and hoarse and heavy enough that Shirogane feels it fill him like helium in a balloon.
“I will give you only a single month to find a human that can love you even in this monstrous form. And at the end of a month, if you fail this endeavor, you will never breathe the air of Earth or Heaven ever again. You must find a human that can say your name and tell you that they love you, and they must truly feel it. If you can achieve this, you have my word. I will fulfill my end of the bargain. If you can achieve this feat, you may live the rest of your existence as a mortal, and when you die… then God himself can judge your soul’s worth.”
Shirogane raises his eyes, wide and surprised, his insides churning with anxiety, with excitement, with relief and doubt that a demon like Zarkon could mean anything that he says, but…
Zarkon rises from his throne, towering and mighty and so shadowed in the darkness that Shirogane can only piece out his glowing eyes from the murky black smoke hanging above him.
“You must move quickly, Shirogane, your ride will leave soon.”
Lance McClain types a set of coordinates into the GPS of his phone, pausing only to roll the cricks out of his neck in his cramped city parking spot between two smart cars, decidedly feeling the weight of his low-income status as he thinks about what his own clunker must look like tucked between these two fancier vehicles. But he decides not to worry about it, thinks that perhaps it’s better to be the person in the shitty car who gets to admire everyone else’s nice things than his poor neighbors who have to feel the value of their property plunging into deeper depths each time that he parks his car in front of their apartment complex.
And when he really thinks about it, when he allows himself to get swept up in fantastical arguments that have never happened and probably won’t ever happen either, he thinks that he might tell anyone who complains that his car is a retro model. His dad is still working on refurbishing it. It wasn’t a cheap car by any means, valued higher because of its potential and not the tarnished state of the cracked leather seats, of the weird dent near the gas tank, or the numerous, spidery cracks in the windshield that no amount of glass repair liquid has completely managed to smooth out. It’s not a car to be embarrassed about by any means. It’s the kind of vehicle that will turn heads in no time, as soon as he actually saves up enough money to commit to getting it repaired.
So to all of the haters, he thinks, all of his imaginary neighbors who raise a fuss about the owners' son parking his expensive eyesore at the front of the building and not in the private parking garage down the block, they can shove it. They can get over it. They’re not going to have any right to talk in a few months, once his savings account grows bulky enough that he can afford a tasteful repaint.
He sighs, allowing that annoyance to ebb away. Most of the tenants are very nice people, he knows. Most of them had been excited when the landlords’ young son had been gifted his dream car at seventeen, once he’d finally managed to pass the driver’s ed test. Old Iverson, a retired drill sergeant who’s grown soft in the years that he’s spent separated from the army, had rapped his knuckles over the rag top and observed the car with a wistful, distant smile.
“I had the same model before I enlisted,” he’d told Lance. “Thought I was the coolest guy around. They don’t make cars like this anymore, son. Make sure you treat her right.”
Lance had proceeded to feel guilty about every fast food bag that he left in the passenger’s floorboards for a few days after that. And he’d started taking it to the car wash more often, if only to see Iverson’s proud smile when he heard the aged motor rumbling up the street every afternoon when Lance returned from class.
The young couple in the ground-floor studio, Rolo and Nyma, had complimented him on his new wheels as well. Rolo had offered him the phone number for a shady, cash-upfront sort of mechanic that he’d said could put some silver rims on it. Lance had politely declined, but he’d kept the number in his wallet to torture his dad with jokingly over the last few years, knowing that the pen scratches are nearly indecipherable in Rolo’s messy hand, and grown too worn and faded by now to actually read what he’d written there in the first place.
And most people are nice, he knows. Most of his neighbors and his parent’s tenants are good people who wouldn’t dream of causing a fuss, but…
Maybe he’s just insecure about it. Maybe he just feels like seven years later, after working part-time in the apartment complex through high school and now, in college, he should have been able to afford even a tune-up by now.
He stares at the blinking circle of his destination on his phone. For the life of him, he can’t remember where all of that spent money went, what he did with it, and why it isn’t nestled safely in his meager savings account right now.
His dad might ask the same thing, if he were to complain about it. Lance wouldn’t have an answer for him. For all he knows right now, it’s been magically blipped from existence. Maybe it never existed there at all.
He shakes his head, leveling himself with a deep sigh and discarding those thoughts for now.
He spares a short look at the building then, the tall expanse of it pierced through the dark evening sky. The lighted windows glow through the hazy orange dusk, the curtains drawn and spotting color on the black silhouette of it erected tall into the sizzling summer heat. He thinks about his neighbors missing this meteor shower later tonight, the same event that he’s pushed around his schedule to make time for. How later on, when the meteors begin to twinkle in the atmosphere, they’ll be unable to pick out the stripes of light in the night air through city pollution.
He wonders how anyone could be willing to pass up this once in a lifetime experience simply because they have to work in the morning or take their children to school. He knows that he has to cover the morning shift in the apartment office, which, he’s more than aware of the fact that this sort of work at a family business isn’t exactly the same as finding himself employed at a place where he doesn’t have to sit across the dinner table from his boss at Christmas. That perhaps, even if he slept in, his mother wouldn’t actually be bold enough to fire him, but even still, he’d like to think that he doesn’t slack that often. That more often than not, he’s just as good of a landlord’s assistant as anyone could reasonably expect at a mid-range income apartment complex right in the middle of one of the most cramped neighborhoods in the city. If he’s tired and less attentive tomorrow, it’ll be rare enough that no one should complain. More imaginary arguments wade to the forefront of his thoughts, but he dismisses them just as quickly. He doesn’t have time for that right now.
He shakes his head, pressing the start button on his GPS app and setting his phone in his lap, listening to the assistant’s voice telling him to make a U-turn as he waits for the traffic to thin long enough to squeeze himself awkwardly from between the two smart cars and into the street. It takes nearly fifteen minutes of waiting, sitting for so long that the sound of his blinker seems to be permanently imprinted in the back of his thoughts, but eventually, thankfully, he manages to find a place for himself among the other waiting cars.
It’s a thirty-minute drive without traffic to reach his destination just outside of city limits, but tonight, with the excitement of the meteor shower heavy on everyone’s thoughts, he knows that plenty of people are headed in similar directions, but hopefully none close enough to the coordinates that Pidge sent him to distract him from enjoying the shower by himself. He’d invited Pidge, too, and Hunk, but neither of them had seemed interested in coming along. Which had been curious, as both of them were far more interested in this lame science stuff than he’s ever been, and leads him to believe that perhaps Pidge was holding out the actual best front-row seat location to watch the shower for herself and Hunk to partake in without him there to distract them from collecting their lame data.
It’s fine anyway. Maybe in a perfect world, Lance might have been excited to invite some love interest or date along to enjoy the show, but woefully single and rejected by two girls in his class who he’d asked to come along, he makes peace with the fact that maybe this will be a more profound and deeply personal experience if he allows himself to undertake it alone.
His phone begins to vibrate in his lap as he waits at a stoplight that he’s starting to believe might just be frozen on red. He finagles the answer button, suddenly flustered and deeply embedded with an ever-present paranoia that a cop might somehow catch him fumbling with his phone in his lap as he clumsily hits the speaker button, jerking his head back and forth to spot any patrol cars before he finally offers a frustrated, breathless, “Hello?”
It’s quiet for a moment, then, Hunk’s voice asks him. “Are you busy right now?”
Lance drops his head back against his seat, breathing out a long string of his aggravation as the light three cars ahead finally turns green.
“No, I’m just driving, dude, you know how traffic is around this time.”
Hunk laughs. It sounds gritty and unclear through the speaker, clipping out for a moment as his connection quivers and he rests his foot gently on the gas pedal to carry him forward.
“Probably doesn’t help that everyone is going to the amphitheater for the meteor shower too. You probably should have taken a longer route if you’re going through 5th street. Which… knowing you…”
Lance grits his teeth. He catches the briefest hint of the shimmery “5th street” sign as he drives past, pointedly not confirming nor denying Hunk’s suspicions as he pumps the brakes when another light some ways away turns red.
“Did you need something?” he asks. “I mean, like, did you and Pidge wanna come along after all?”
He doesn’t particularly like how desperate that sounds, but the closer he draws to city limits, the more painfully aware he becomes of how lonely and subtly creepy it might be to find himself out in the wilderness of an unmanned highway once the sun sets.
Hunk clears his throat, the line crackles again.
“Nah, I’m sorry, dude. But I thought maybe we could hang out after? Pidge has just… been kinda planning this whole thing for months now. I don’t think I’d have even been invited if she didn’t need someone to help her collect data, you know how she gets. But I’m free around ten if you wanna come over and play some video games or something.”
Lance sucks in the side of his cheek, chewing on his lip for a moment. Is he desperate enough for human interaction that he’s willing to make himself even more tired tomorrow? Is he really so lonely that he’ll risk the traffic after the shower clears just to drive across town and meet up at Hunk and Pidge’s place?
“Sounds good, man, I’ll see you at ten.”
There’s quiet for a moment, in which he suspects that Hunk is nodding, as he often does, as though Lance can actually see him doing so. He draws in another long, sharp breath, clipped as the rest of their conversation has been as Lance takes a turn towards the correct street, indicated on the GPS that he’s been eyeing since Hunk called and quieted the assistant’s helpful voice.
“Oh, uh, also,” Hunk says. “You did bring binoculars and stuff, right? It’s not supposed to be a super impressive show or anything. Think, like, when we had that eclipse and it was like 5 seconds of dark, you know? It’ll be clearer in rural areas, but I doubt you wanna drive five hours to the nearest farm just to enjoy a twenty-minute shower.”
Lance clicks his tongue. He spares a look to the passenger seat where he’s rested the binoculars that his mom dug out of the back of her closet for him.
“Yeah, I’m good, man. Thanks. I’ll talk to you later, I’m almost in a dead zone.”
He hangs up soon after, already entirely too frazzled from the traffic and the idea that Pidge really did purposefully not invite him out, jumping in sudden surprise when his phone tells him,
“Turn left in 250 feet.”
His car lurches through the street, jumpy once he draws far enough outside of city limits that the sleek highway transforms gradually into loose gravel that crunches beneath his near-bald tires. He considers for a moment turning on his radio but opts against it. He isn’t completely positive where he’s headed, neglected to map out his path a few days ago when Pidge first gave him this information in the hope that maybe they’d feel guilty enough to invite him along with them and he wouldn’t actually need to go out here alone. And he knows deep down that this sort of thing isn’t even usually something that he’d care about, that he’d more than likely have distracted Hunk from collecting data just as he’d supposedly “ruined” the eclipse too. He understands that his own lack of respect for Pidge’s hobbies put him here in the first place, but… he can’t help but still feel indignant about it anyway, can’t stop himself from being petty and seeing this through to the end, if only so he can hold that guilt over both of their heads when they realize that he supposedly cared enough about this shower that he was willing to go out into the middle of nowhere and watch it by himself.
Maybe that’ll teach them to be more considerate next time, just as, privately, he’s wondering if the next time that Pidge and Hunk invite him along to collect data, he should actually try to take it even remotely seriously.
He slows down, clicking on his blinker and dragging his car into a steep turn, just at the end of an unmarked road. He’s only wandered out to the sticks here once or twice, only spared these long stretches of farmland just beyond the reaches of his town a second thought when considering road trips that he might be able to take in a distant future, but never committed to enough as a twenty-four-year-old barely making $300 a week at his current gig to plan more than a fleeting, whimsical thought. But maybe someday, he thinks. Maybe, eventually, he might surprise everyone and break out of his monotonous routines. And he’ll do, well, something —maybe he’ll drive through the country and go on vacation unannounced! Maybe he’ll buy a train ticket and venture from his home to the bigger cities just a few hours up north. Or maybe he’ll transfer to an out of state college, who knows. The world is his oyster, and now, he knows, he’s more capable than ever before to make any of his dreams come true. Even though, deep down, he knows that he probably won’t.
Even those very normal experiences seem a little too bold for how complacent he’s become as of late, but he likes to tell himself that he’s capable of making a great change, if ever a change presented itself attractively enough.
But as it is, even driving less than an hour from his house to watch this shower feels a little risky, a little too weird. He wonders if he should have invited one of his sisters along with him, but Rachel is babysitting their niece and nephew tonight while their brother takes his wife on their monthly dinner date. Veronica is unreliable even on the best nights, and a Friday, of all weekdays, he knows, is the spottiest time to find her. In lieu of the clubs or restaurants or parties that she frequently attends, he can’t imagine that watching a meteor shower with her little brother would be a particularly attractive prospect. Surely, she’s probably already made plans to watch the show through the city smog on some guy’s apartment rooftop, barely able to make out the white shapes of the meteors scoring through the air but knowing that the sights themselves are secondary to the free beer.
His phone tells him that he’s less than a mile away. Ahead of him, he recognizes the endless stretch of overgrown and abandoned farmland that Pidge showed him on her computer days ago. He’s careful as he drives his car from the gravel into the grass, mindful of every strange lurch of the engine and every overworked churn that it makes before he decides that he’s far enough into the grass not to attract any unwanted attention, and turns his car off. As a retired model, a ‘65 Mustang, he’s certain that he can find a comfortable spot for himself on its wide hood while he watches the shower. He’s brought an old blanket and a patio pillow along with him, determined not to dirty any of his bedding that he actually cares about when he has a feeling that he’ll be taking new, undiscovered species of insects home with him after spending time so far away from civilization.
He pockets his keys, unbuckling his seatbelt and extending himself over the seats to grab his things from the passenger seat before shoving out of his car into the ankle-high grass. This stretch of land has been uninhabited for so many long months that it’s wild and untamed again, a testament to nature’s innate ability to revive itself when left to its own devices, away from human hands. Around him, in the muggy late summer heat, he can hear crickets chirping and a strange humming from a creature that he doesn’t quite recognize. In the trees that frame this farmland, he can hear the branches shuddering and the birds within them squawking and calling out into the thick orange light of dusk. It reminds him a little bit of being a kid and running through the small patch of green grass behind the apartment complex, catching fireflies in his palms and watching them slowly flutter away into the brightly-lit night of a home town that never quite learned how to fall asleep. There isn’t the resonant thumping of bar music to accompany him here, as it used to when he played outside as a kid. There isn’t the ever-present bite of salty city air, or the stink of trash set out and simmering in the summer heat, cooked on the asphalt until the garbage men came to collect it in the early afternoon.
Out here, it’s alive in ways that the city never is: thrumming with wildlife but strangely quiet, stilled as though it’s a photograph snapped of his life and encapsulated in this sole moment. Time fails to move from here, from the scene rolled out and unmoving before him, of the weeds grown too heavy and matted down under the oppressive weight of the sun, the orange-cast of dusk, the bugs flitting around in the grass and the trees swaying gently in a damp breeze that overheats him more than it offers any relief. No matter how long he sits and waits for the sun to set behind the cage of overgrown, gnarled trees, there’s only more time to keep waiting. He wonders if he should have left later, or if the city traffic would have grown too heavy to navigate here on time had he put it off.
He sets his blanket and pillow on the hood of his car, shimmying over the surface of it and eventually making himself as comfortable on hard metal as he can manage. The binoculars sit forgotten next to him as he waits for the sun to set, as he distracts himself with random articles and social media pages on his phone and plays a random playlist on his music app that he’d pieced together in anticipation of tonight. He’d picked some romantic songs, just in case, thrown in some atmospheric tunes that always make him feel smaller and more contained in a wide and unknowing universe. He finds the whole thing pretty corny and just the smallest bit lonely now, thinking about how he’d put the mix together in anticipation of someone else hearing it, and wondering pathetically why he doesn’t just switch to something that he likes a lot more, now that there’s no chance that anyone else will join him. He isn’t positive why he’s so dead-set on making tonight work, when he’s already itchy and too sweaty and aching to go home and shower. Already so bitten up by insects that he knows that he’ll spend the entirety of tomorrow rubbing itch-cream over his sores between phone calls and visits with whichever tenants call him with concerns.
But maybe this just feels like the kind of thing that people his age should care about. It’s been all over social media for a few weeks now, and even his professor had stopped his lesson early near the end to ask everyone what their plans were for tonight. It’s early August now, at the cusp of fall, the beginning of another long school year before Lance finally manages to collect his degree in Business Management that he’d reassured his mother would make him a better landlord when he someday inherits the apartment complex so she can retire. As the youngest kid and the only one who was actually interested in continuing the family business once his parents got too old, he’d thought that having some education in that field would benefit him. He wonders if it would be better if he rebelled more against that as well, despite the fact that running the complex hadn’t actually seemed so bad. He’d always loved the smell of the halls that he grew up in, the feeling of existing as a home that so many people could return to. There’d always been something invigorating about being a shelter, about being afforded the unique opportunity to meet many different people from many different backgrounds, and he’d never understood why Veronica and Rachel and his brothers had been so adamant about not wanting any part in it once they got old enough to move away.
He isn’t sure if he’s just accepted his fate or if he’s truly happy. He feels happy, at least. He feels as though he doesn’t have any complaints about where his life has gone so far.
And maybe that’s his problem, too, that he’s always been very content with the path that he’s been led down since he was born. He’s happy in every way that matters, but he’s always wondered if maybe he shouldn’t be. If maybe, deep down, beneath the “deep down” at which he knows that he truly is content with all of this, there rests an unconscious version of himself that wants so much more than just a little bit of excitement from time to time to shake up everything else.
Anymore, maybe he’s just bored. With himself, with the safety net that he’s entangled in, with the realization that he’s perfectly happy continuing on as he is, but…
There’s a part of him that needs something more.
And he wishes more than anything that he could determine exactly what that is. He wishes for that, but he knows, too, that he’s never made any meaningful strides to discover it.
The sun drops fully behind the treeline, immersing the buzzing world around him in semi-solid black. The nightlife in the field surrounding him grows restless in the dark. The sound of the insects singing out becomes so deafening that even turning up his phone’s volume fully can’t drown them out. Lance rolls his eyes, sitting up straighter and squinting through the dark up at the wide blanket of stars overhead as he thinks about how much the outdoors sucks. He can’t possibly understand how some people come out to places like this for fun, and why he’s doing so right now. Why, for the life of him, he’d thought that he’d gain anything from tonight but a myriad of bug bites and malaria, maybe, or bird flu, or any number of ailments wholly not worth the sheer amount of effort that he’s expended solely to watch this stupid meteor shower alone.
He checks his phone, noting that it’s grown just late enough that the shower should be starting soon. Hunk has texted him as well to remind him, and he frowns at that, clearing away the notification without responding to it and feeling even more childish about the whole thing than he has prior. He doesn’t need Hunk to hold his hand through this and he definitely doesn’t want his pity right now. Later, of course, but not while he’s already invested time in seeing this through alone. He doesn’t want to feel any more pathetic than he already does, lonelier or more pitiful than he needs to when he’s already committed himself to wasting his time and suffering in the itchy wilderness heat just to know with certainty that he did so. Just because it seems like the kind of thing that people should want to do.
He just wants to see these stupid pretty rocks falling fast and burning up in the atmosphere. He just wants even the smallest opportunity to find a small piece of space rock somewhere among these many wild weeds so he can hold that over Pidge’s dumb head for a few days before he inevitably folds and allows her to take it. He switches the song on his playlist to a slower one, setting his phone down on the blanket and reaching over to grab his binoculars. He tries to remember exactly where in the sky Pidge had told him to look from this position. A little to the left, he thinks. He peers through the viewfinder, focusing on blipping satellites and distant stars and wondering how it might feel to be so far away. How it must feel to never move but watch the world turn every night, as though stars, so far away, could ever know that Earth with all of its various curious lifeforms exists just lightyears in the dark distance.
He’s never dreamed much of traveling out there, of doing more than watching the night sky through the pieces of dark clouds and the light pollution in the city. He’s never thought about how it must feel to fizzle in a small ship in the atmosphere before shooting through to space. And it feels small now, to consider that. To think of the great things that many men have done before him while Lance himself withers away in anonymous contentment in his silly, dead-end life.
Through his binoculars, Lance watches the first blips of light scoring short lines of white through the inky night sky. He focuses on them, feeling even smaller as he watches them, wondering pitifully how it might feel to burn brightly and blink out just as fast. Wondering if it’s better to live a short and stalled but exciting existence than it might be to toil away over everything that matters so little, that he finds himself jumping to, from distraction to distraction, as he continues to lack any substance that might set his life apart from anyone else’s.
And he knows that wishing on stars is something that he should have stopped doing when he was a child, but the melodious lyrics and the romantic strum of acoustic strings thrumming through his phone—mingling with the cricket-song and the birds cooing from the trees, and the soft breeze carding through the leaves and the overgrown grass—inspires something in him as his hands shake and his sight of the meteors blinking tragically temporary light through the air overwhelms him.
In his thoughts, he imagines a version of himself that needs for something more. In his head, he imagines that he could be sparked by the drive to cement himself in history as those spacemen sizzling through the atmosphere have in the past.
‘I want to be…’
The stars are bright and so distant and ever present in the night, obscured in the morning by sunlight, but looming overhead for all of eternity. Beamed here from great distances even long after they’ve died away. The world around him is vibrating with the life of animals that he’ll never learn the names of, or learn to recognize by their sounds alone, or know them more than he’ll meet them in this brief, passing moment, forgotten days later when tonight becomes more of a culmination of his misery than any individual encounter set apart from the monotony. Pidge and Hunk, somewhere in the secretive distance, piecing together their data, they actually care about something. They have passions that burn within them like the fire of those stars. Like those spacemen. Like everyone around him, collected and so far above him, and so coveted because of their passions that Lance has never found within himself long enough to spend his life chasing it.
A thick meteor, tailed by a long strand of yellow light, shoots through the sky. It’s brighter than its brothers, staying lit long after the others fizzle out. Barreling downward at a speed so fast that he loses sight of it even as he jerks his binoculars to chase it.
‘I wish that I could be better than this. I wish that something exciting could happen. I wish that I could do something new and unexpected and I could surprise even me. I wish that I could be better than this. I wish that I could care about something. I wish that… I could find something important enough to really care about.’
He catches sight of that big meteor again, realizes even with his limited capacity of understanding about science that it probably should have been burned up in the atmosphere by now. But it’s growing bigger as it draws nearer, close enough that the light of it illuminates the sky in smoky gray, leaving charred ash in hundreds of speckles in the air behind it, hot enough that when it crashes through the tall trees, it sets the tips of their leafy branches alight with fire. Lance’s eyes widen, his sputtering pulse climbs up into his throat. It doesn’t stop, doesn’t fizzle out. It’s barreling towards him at rapid speed. It isn’t going to stop until it buries itself violently into the ground. And it’s coming closer to him. It’s going to crash right into him. It’s going to kill him if he doesn’t move. It’s so big, still burning. It’s dangerous, and he isn’t moving fast enough to escape it.
He tosses his binoculars to the side, rolling clumsily off of his car and stumbling backward through the tangled weeds, losing his footing and tumbling to the ground and crawling through the mess of them as the meteor falls closer, so fast that it blurs at its red-lit edges, clipping off branches, rolling closer and closer until it smacks, hard, into the rear side of his car.
The impact is so intense that the entire body of his vehicle lunches downward, caving in on itself and groaning miserably. It’s propelled by that force into the air again, crunching hard in the grass just behind it and rolling for a short moment before it finally settles down. Lance is so terrified that he can’t even find the will to be truly present for what any of this means. He doesn’t think about the damage as he watches the meteor crack open, as the heat of it dies and drops molten stone to the ground, simmering against the grass that burns under it, melting off pieces of paint from the shattered remains of Lance’s car’s tail end. It’s scratched with lines of red from Lance’s poor car. It’s covered in flecks of steel from the trunk that it decimated. It crackles and smoke billows up into the still, black sky. It grows quieter once again, and even the symphony of bug-song around him seems to have fallen silent. He watches the wreckage for a long moment, breathing hard as his pulse shoves thickly through his aching veins, as he realizes belatedly exactly what’s happened and how close he came to being pulverized under that large mound of rock or burned by the sparks that still spit from it as it cools down.
Somewhere in the grass, his phone switches to the next song.
Lance wonders if this is a good reason to call 911, or if he’d just be bothering them with a needless complaint when no one actually got hurt. He shakes his head, electing, for now, to assess the damage on his own, pulling himself up on shaky feet and stumbling forward. He rests his hand against the front end of his car to steady himself, surprised momentarily by how hot it suddenly feels. He wrenches back for a moment, but loses his footing soon after. When he drags himself up again, he grits his teeth against the uncomfortable heat of his hood, gropes a path for himself around the car as his dumb, rubber legs refuse to work for him properly and his loose, jellied brain sloshes through thoughts that aren’t nearly as crucial as they should be for someone who just nearly died. He wonders what in the world his mom is going to say when if he can actually get his car to start and drives it home. When she sees what he’s managed to do tonight, will he be grounded? Can she even ground him when he’s twenty-four and pays his own utilities? She won’t believe him, surely, that it was a meteor. She’ll be so horrified that she might even make him take one of those silly home drug tests that she keeps stocked in the office for new employees.
He ambles forward, hands steadied on the side of his car as he draws nearer to where the meteor has now settled itself in a circle of black burned grass just off behind the twisted remains of his trunk. He winces at the sight of the destroyed back end, studying for a moment the way that it’s caved inward and flattened, how the door has popped open at the edges like a plastic bottle overfilled with CO2. He wonders if he can at least get it home so he can start figuring out how he’s going to afford to get it repaired. But he’s distracted then, by the sound of cracking, the sizzling of steam floating through the jagged crevices fractured in the dark surface of the meteor. He watches in horror as it splinters open, grating and so hot that he jerks backward to avoid the simmer of smoke against his face, shielding himself with one bug-bitten arm as suddenly, much to his horror, something crawls out of one long crack in the center and shoves it apart.
The thing that slides through the rippled edges of rock is a hand, black-tipped fingers, long and clawlike enough that it reminds Lance suddenly of all of the fantasy movies that he’s watched with Hunk about dragons being birthed from fiery eggs. An arm extends outward after, long and thick and chiseled with muscle, slow enough that it feels as though this moment might be extended over several of his lifetimes. He watches with breath caught in his throat as that arm reveales a shoulder, then a filthy, black-powdered head, then the entirety of a soot-stained figure clawing its way from the shattered stone. The horns catch his attention next, deep crimson coated in dirt, goatlike prongs that extend straight out from just above what looks to be a man’s ears. A naked, filthy man who’s just jettisoned through the sky and pulverized his car.
Lance nearly faints, nearly tears himself away and scrambles to find his phone and fretfully call Hunk or a hospital or someone who might be able to tell him that he’s not suddenly gone insane. But he finds that he’s rooted here now, watching this man—this tall and chiseled, nude man—reach a clawed hand out and steady himself against the side of Lance’s broken trunk before he pulls himself to his feet. His hair, under the soot, is short and shimmering white, like starlight, Lance thinks before he can stop himself. And his body is muscular, pale white and crafted seemingly out of stone, scarred with deep indentations that Lance resists the urge in terror to reach forward and skim his fingers over, just to feel if they’re real. If it would feel like sneaking under the velvet ropes in middle school to touch one of the marble sculptures at the city museum, if it would be organic, instead, cold or warm, and if this man could be real flesh and blood and not a ghostly figure beamed from his imagination now that he’s surely lost his marbles in the middle of nowhere.
The brief glimpse of the meteor shower dies away into the dark night. The playlist on Lance’s phone ends and goes quiet at the end of the final song. The buzzing of insects around him picks up again and the man risen from this molten rock turns and fixes him with a sharp, surprised stare with dark and deep and beautiful eyes that possess his attention wholly. It seems that he’s just now noticing him. It seems that he doesn’t understand why this feeble person is watching him now as though none of this is even remotely out of the ordinary.
Lance swallows thickly, his knees wobble under his weight, kept propped up only by his arms thrown desperately over the side of his car.
The man glosses his gazes over Lance, to the broken remains of his vehicle, to the thriving night and the inky sky, and he breathes in deeply, tips his head back and closes his eyes. His broad chest expands fully, holds that breath for a short moment before he pushes it out again. He sighs, and a soft, contented smile rolls over his dirty lips.
“I’m back, aren’t I?”
The man says—to Lance or himself or no one, Lance isn’t sure, but he definitely doesn’t have his wits about him nearly enough right now to make any sense of it. Or even to offer a proper response. He clears his throat, jerking fearfully more upright when the man turns his gaze back down to him, when he slides open those dark eyes and focuses a more tender look in his direction. He towers nearly a head and a half taller than Lance, shadowed in the night and blotted out in places where the ash from his meteor ride has coated his skin. Lance trains his eyes upward, doesn’t allow them to slip further down than a few deep scars painted over the man’s chest, those dark nipples, the way that his muscles press up under his skin and cast narrow shadows over his abdomen.
Lance catches his eyes again, slips precariously to the edge of his car as his weight gives out, as he drops to his knees on the cushion of weeds underfoot and finds himself looking desperately up at this man, this creature, this whatever the Hell he could possibly be.
The man flicks his eyes from Lance to his car again, back to his face, to the destroyed backend of the Mustang.
“Oh, this was… yours wasn’t it?” he asks. Lance feels like he might throw up. His head feels so light that he can barely offer more than a squeak in response. “I promise, I can make this right. I can repair this damage, but… human, please, I need your assistance.”
The man bends down, extends a clawed hand as though Lance would ever consider grasping it. As though Lance isn’t proverbially (and perhaps, soon, physically) shitting his pants at the mere implications of everything that’s just unfolded in front of him in a meager ten or so minutes. When Lance doesn’t accept his offer, that clawed hand dithers in the air for a moment between them, dropping in a disappointed, slow way that makes Lance feels strangely guilty, through the flurry of every other emotion that quickly washes it away.
“I’m so sorry for the intrusion,” the man tells him. “I don’t quite know how to explain this to you, but… My name is Shirogane. I can’t recall my human name, but you may call me Shirogane, at least, until I regain my humanity, however… I’m not sure how I might be able to do that without assistance. It’s difficult to explain, but you have my word that I’ll repair your home here if you can assist me. Demons might not be known for our honestly, but I think you’ll find that I’m not like any other demon that you’ve met before me.”
Lance barks a laugh, clapping a hand over his mouth abruptly after when Shirogane’s eyes fall back to him. He drags himself upward, wobbly on his feet as he swallows a few deep breaths, as he forces his thoughts to stop swirling and his stomach to stop churning as he levels Shirogane with a deceptively firm look. He can’t shake the feeling that he’s in danger now, as he imagines must be natural when some lunatic calling himself a demon, of all things, just crash-landed in a meteor into his car, but Shirogane doesn’t seem to be actively trying to maim him, at least.
For now, maybe, if he plays his cards right, he might be able to get out of this alive and hopefully unharmed.
“I—I’m Lance, uh, that’s my… human name and what you can call me, I guess… And, this isn’t… my house, but yeah, uh, I’m gonna go out on a limb here and assume that you don’t have insurance that could cover this.”
This supposed demon, Shirogane, tips his head to the side. The small sprig of fluffier hair hung just between his eyes falls over, catching for a moment in his ivory lashes as he pauses for a moment, as though he’s chewing on the idea of asking Lance what in the world he’s talking about. Instead, he turns to inspect the lengthy field around them, chest expanding and falling back as he takes long, labored breaths. He seems like a man who’s just breached his head above water after almost drowning. He seems like a person who hasn’t experienced clear air in a very long time.
Lance almost laughs again. Join the club, he thinks, try growing up in the city, buddy.
But the second time that Shirogane offers that large, clawed hand, Lance takes it. He doesn’t know why he does so. He doesn’t know why he’s suddenly feeling more relaxed in this ludicrous situation, but he decides that maybe he’s just made peace with his own swift descent into madness.
Shirogane tells him briefly, in cryptic terms that he doesn’t even attempt to understand, that he needs shelter and an ally to assist him in his “bet”. Lance tells him that he can offer an overnight room and a shower, says that he’ll do anything within reason to fix his car, makes him swear that he won’t dart off once Lance brings him back to civilization or he’ll actually call the cops.
They shake on their pact, even though Lance has no idea what any of this might entail. He can’t stop himself from focusing for a long moment on the narrow, jagged scar embedded deeply over Shirogane’s nose. He can’t stop himself from wondering guiltily if he’d be less invested in this ridiculous hallucination if his subconscious had conjured up a less attractive demon to terrorize him.
He goes along with this because part of him is certain that he’s just imagining it. He thinks that any moment now, he’ll wake up and discover that he slept through the meteor shower. Or maybe he’s still in class, or in bed, or any place but actually rooted here in the thick grass, being eaten alive by bugs and making pacts with a man who calls himself a demon unironically, who took a ride down to Earth on space rocks in the same way that most normal people would board a plane.
“I’ll help you, I guess,” he says. “But you have to promise that you’ll fix my car. My mom’s already gonna kill me when she sees it.”
This isn’t real, so there isn’t any harm in playing along.
Shirogane nods, suddenly somber. Lance steps around his car, still steadied against it somewhat, still not wholly confident in his legs’ ability to carry all of his weight, before tugging open the driver’s side door and slipping inside. Shirogane follows suit, Lance tells himself that there’s nothing bizarre about this at all, that he’ll laugh about it later when he wakes up. He wonders if he could get away with peeling out before Shirogane manages to slip inside but isn’t entirely confident that his car will even start now. He doesn’t know why he’s putting reason to any of this, but he decides that it’ll make a more interesting story later if he does. It’s no fun if he wakes up too soon and doesn’t get to see the end.
It’s not interesting if he just tells Hunk in a few hours that he refused to help the demon and accidentally woke himself up.
His car miraculously hums to life just as Shirogane closes the door behind him. Just as he settles in and begins inspecting the interior.
Lance is washed over by a looming sense that he might not actually wake up from this. From the vivid itch of bite-sores on his arms, to the smoky smell of Shirogane taking residence in his passenger’s side seat some inches away. The feeling of his body heat feeling sticky and dewy between them, to the soft sound of Shirogane’s strangled breaths, hoarse as though his throat and lungs are still growing acclimated to the cleaner air.
It’s all a little too real. It’s the most authentic nightmare that Lance has ever had.
And deep down, part of him understands that this is reality. But for the sake of his psyche, he continues to convince himself weakly that none of this could actually be happening.
“O-okay,” Lance says, already dreading an immediate, unavoidable future, “you gotta explain to me what you need help with later, but first… we really need to put some clothes on you.”
This is a story that Epi and I have been working on for a few months for our good friend Meeokie’s birthday! It’s been so much fun to write since we started it, and I gotta say… working with Epi is always a dream.
Chapters will be posted every other week, so Epi’s wonderful chapter will update on October 28th!
Until then, thank you so much for reading! And a late, late Happy Birthday to Meeokie (months later)!
“Hey, do you, um…,” Lance tries to say as he shifts the car into drive, hands working on autopilot. For a guy who’s usually got a lot of words, he’s a little lost for them right now in the wake of the past ten minutes, but he’s doing his best to pick up the scattered pieces. “Do you wanna use that blanket maybe? To, uh, cover yourself up?”
He kind of squeaks it more than says it, but that’s not his fault. He pins it on the fact that there’s a large naked demon man sitting in his passenger’s seat and yeah. Okay. They’re going back to Lance’s apartment together because this is his life now, he guesses. Miraculously, the damaged car moves forward when he slides his foot off the break, and very, very determinedly looks at the road instead of the soot caked over abs that Lance would best describe as rippling . And he doesn’t just throw that word around.
(Not to mention the other parts of Shirogane he could be looking at. Which he definitely didn’t, alright? So don’t even ask.)
“I don’t want to get it dirty,” Shirogane protests, though he’s already grabbed it and smudged his fingerprints into the fibers.
“It’s fine,” Lance says, but he’s pretty sure the blanket is going to be ruined. If not by the ash, by the fact that he knows it came into contact with this demon’s (admittedly impressive, though Lance wouldn’t know that because he definitely didn’t look) private parts. He’ll never be able to use it again without having that intrusive thought. But he tries to be polite anyway. “We’ve got laundry machines in the basement of my building. Don’t know if you’ve got those in demon land or wherever you came from but—”
“Hell,” Shirogane says.
Lance glances over at him. “Huh? What?”
Shirogane looks at him, steady and serious.
“I came from Hell.”
For some reason, the words sink into Lance with the same intensity that the meteor sank into the fragile, oh-so-easily-crumpled frame of Lance’s car. There’s a lot of gravity in those words, the way Shirogane says them. Words that might normally might be a self-deprecating joke suddenly seem very intense.
“Right,” Lance says, trying to match his tone. “So are you here to terrorize humanity or something? Drag some people back down with you to worship your demonic overlords? What do demons leave Hell for?”
“I already explained my bet to you,” Shirogane replies. “That’s the reason that I’m here.”
Right, because apparently Lance is expected to remember everything strange horned dudes who fell out of the sky say to him in way too many big words when he’s worrying about his nearly-totaled car. Even now he can hear the good old girl making some worrying noises as they zip along, and making it almost as hard to focus on Shirogane’s words as his big, big biceps.
“Yeah, can you run that by me again?” Lance says. “Using only words you’d find on the simple English Wikipedia, please.”
Shirogane pauses. “What’s a Wikipedia?”
“There’s no Wikipedia in Hell?” Lance sighs. “Damn, better tell that to my 7th grade English teacher. She seemed to think it was from there.”
Shirogane goes quiet, and Lance realizes he’s being a very poor host to the mortal plane.
“Anyway,” he says, “what’s your bet?”
“I wanted to return to Earth, so I appealed to Lord Zarkon, the king of the demons,” Shirogane replies. “He said he would allow it, if I could find a human to truly love me within a month. If not, I’ll return to Hell forever.”
“Huh, okay.” Lance drums his fingers against the steering wheel. Something smells kinda funky, but he can’t tell if it’s the car or the pungent stench of sulfur that he can’t wait for Shirogane to wash off of him, so he figures it’s fine. “Sounds like a Disney movie. If Disney movies took place in Hell.”
“What’s….” Shirogane trails off and sighs. “Never mind.”
Guiltily, Lance makes a mental note to not reference anything ever and leans an arm on the door.
“So, what, you’ve just gotta score a few dates or something, right?” Lance says. “Shouldn’t be too hard.”
Shirogane shrugs. “I think it’s going to be a little more involved than just a few dates. Zarkon said they have to truly love me, and tell me such.”
“That demon king drives a hard bargain, huh?” Rolling to a stop at a light, Lance huffs a chuckle and wiggles his eyebrows at Shirogane. “Well, I’ll have you know that you did wreck the right guy’s car. They don’t call me Loverboy Lance for nothing. I’ll hook you up real good in no time.”
Shirogane turns to look at him, his eyes full of hope, and Lance feels a little bit bad for leaving out the small detail that he’s been rejected by every single person he’s asked out in the past two years. But that’s irrelevant. This isn’t about him and his flirting abilities that are obviously way too good for the common people who live in a town like this.
This is about getting his car fixed.
“So you’re going to pay for my car though, right?” Lance asks.
Shirogane nods resolutely. “I have no money, but I’ll do everything within my power to return it to its former glory.”
Its former glory. Lance snorts. That’s all he can really ask for, he guesses, even if it was Shirogane’s fault in the first place. He feels a little bad for the guy. He obviously wasn’t having such a grand old time in Hell, so if he can help keep him out of there, well, that’s nice for both of them then.
The smell is starting to make him a little queasy, so as they cruise into the city, Lance rolls the windows down. The burst of fresh, warm night air that gusts into the car is a relief, but seemingly more so to Shirogane than to himself. Almost instantly, Shirogane sticks his head out the window and takes an enormous inhale of air. Then, hands gripping the car door and body leaned completely towards the outside, he watches the world pass by.
It’s cute, like an oversized Labrador retriever. Lance finds himself looking at Shirogane every time they stop at a light, watching the stoplights and headlights reflected in Shirogane’s dark sclera. The demon sits transfixed, eyes darting about, mouth curved up into a gentle, excited smile, happily drinking in the city streets that Lance takes for granted as he drives them every day. It isn’t until a woman stopped for a red in the next lane over catches sight of Shirogane and her eyes bug out that Lance reins him in and asks him to pull his head back inside the car, but he doesn’t have the heart to close the window.
They make their way like this to Lance’s apartment building, and as he pulls into the lot he gives it an introduction.
“Here we are,” he says. “Home sweet home.”
“Wow,” Shirogane breathes in reply, craning his neck dramatically even though the building is only four stories. “It’s very grand.”
Lance chokes on a laugh. His family’s apartment building isn’t a shithole by any means, but “grand” is maybe the last word he’d ever choose to describe it. The front steps are in desperate need of a good powerwashing and the paint on the front door is chipped, so Lance isn’t quite sure what Shirogane is seeing, but it’s definitely not the same thing he is.
“Well, just wait until you see my grand one-bedroom,” Lance says and cuts the engine. He gives the dashboard a pat as thanks for hanging in there and carrying them this far, and pulls the keys out of the ignition, moving to get out of the car.
Shirogane follows his lead, pulling the handle to open the door like a pro once he sees Lance do it, but Lance pauses still seated with one foot on the ground. Shirogane stops too.
“What’s your name again?” Lance asks. “Shirogane?”
“Yes, that’s right,” Shirogane replies, clutching the blanket to his thighs even as he leans halfway out the door.
“That’s a mouthful,” Lance says. “You got a nickname? Something your friends call you?”
A thoughtful expression crosses Shirogane’s face, and he pauses to look at the sky.
“I have one friend,” he says after a moment. “He calls me Shiro.”
One friend sounds even more pathetic than Lance’s small smattering of acquaintances, but he figures demons probably aren’t the most friendly bunch. Either way, Lance thinks as he swings out of the driver’s seat, he’s got to get this denizen of Hell upstairs before people start asking questions about the naked man and his scrap heap of a car.
“Alright, Shiro ,” Lance says. “Let’s get you a shower.”
Shiro marvels his way all the way up the elevator, through Lance’s front door, and into the bathroom. Lance is grateful for the reprieve when he shuts the door behind him after fishing some threadbare towels out from his linen closet and leaving them on the counter of the already-steamy room, determinedly looking everywhere but at Shiro when he drops the blanket to the floor and steps into the shower stall with a throaty moan. Lance already knows he doesn’t want to see the state of his shower once Shiro is finished rinsing all that soot off, but that’s a problem for later Lance.
Now Lance just wants to find Shiro some clothes, leave them outside the bathroom door, and pass out on his beat-up couch for twenty minutes.
Lance knows for a damn fact that any pants he bought for himself will probably only reach to midway down Shiro’s calves, and that’s if he can manage to pull them on without tearing the seams at his thighs. He rifles around for a while before coming across a pair of sweats left here by Hunk that Lance had never returned, and grabs one of his extra big sleeping shirts to go with it. Unfortunately, he has nothing in the way of underwear that might fit Shiro, so he’s just gonna have to go without.
Lance tries really hard not to think about that.
He’s just left the clothes for Shiro in a neat, folded pile right outside of the bathroom and is about to collapse in a heap on his small, creaky couch, when there comes a pounding on his front door.
Weird. Lance isn’t expecting anyone. Also, it’s not really a good time. But it could easily be a misdirected pizza delivery, or one of the other tenants with a problem. Sighing, Lance makes his way across the main space of his apartment and swings the door open.
There, in the hallway, fiddling nervously with his phone, is Hunk. He looks up as he hears the door open, and his eyes grow big and round when he sees Lance.
“Oh thank god,” he says in a rush. “I thought a coyote had gotten you, or maybe there was a serial killer hidden out in the field and you happened across them dismembering a body and then they had to kill you too and they were dumping your body off the bridge into the river and—”
“Hunk, chill!” Lance interrupts. “I’m fine! What are you doing here?”
Hunk looks at him quizzically. “You’re the one who said you wanted to hang out. But then you didn’t answer your phone and you always answer texts in under ten seconds so I got worried and decided to come check on you.”
Hang out? Yeah, no, Lance is definitely in no position to hang out right now. Especially not in his apartment. There are some things that Hunk really doesn’t need to know. He isn’t even totally sure he isn’t completely hallucinating Shiro yet, so the last thing he wants Hunk to think is that he’s losing his mind. He can tell from the expression on Hunk’s face and the way he’s edging forward that he’s wondering why Lance hasn’t invited him in yet. Lance tries to make his gangly frame fill the door as impedingly as possible.
“I’ve been a little busy,” Lance says, trying to figure out how to make Hunk leave without straight up telling him to leave. “But I’m good.”
Hunk frowns like he doesn’t believe him, but his attention gets pulled to something over Lance’s shoulder. Lance panics for a second, wondering if Shiro has emerged from his shower, but when he looks the door to the bathroom is still closed and the sound of running water is clear behind it.
“ Oh ,” Hunk says, in a big, surprised whisper. “You have someone over .”
“Uh,” Lance says eloquently. “Yep. Yeah. That’s it.”
Hunk grins big and chuckles. “Good for you, man! I was getting worried about you. Who is she? Someone I know?”
Lance almost laughs. Unless Hunk has been hanging out in Hell lately, it’s not likely.
“Nope,” he says.
The way Hunk squints at him tells Lance that he’s probably acting weird. But honestly, Lance has bigger problems right now. Like the fact that Shiro could finish showering and step out of that bathroom at any second. Probably naked. And while Hunk has always been exceptionally accepting of Lance’s lifestyle choices, he knows “literal demon” is probably a good place to draw the line.
“You’re not gushing. Why aren’t you gushing?” Hunk says. “Is she weird? Is she ugly? It’s not Nyma again, is it?”
“No!” Lance says. “It’s not Nyma. It’s, uh. Some guy I met recently. At...a thing.”
None of that is a lie, so Lance feels at least a little bit good about himself, even as Hunk continues to stare at him with narrowed eyes.
“Look, can we do this later?” Lance says. “I’ve got to go.”
“Fine,” Hunk says with a frown. “But you’d better text me back and let me know you’re not dead.”
There’s a squeak from the shower water knobs, and the sound of water pounding on porcelain cuts off.
“Okay yeah for sure!” Lance says, and slams the door shut in Hunk’s face.
He feels a little bit guilty, but not as guilty as he would feel if Hunk caught sight of Shiro and had a full-blown meltdown about the safety of inviting a demon to his place in the hallway of his apartment building, so he manages to push it aside for the time being. He’ll apologize to Hunk later with a slice of pumpkin bread from his favorite bakery.
Locking the door behind him and internally vowing to not answer it again no matter who is pounding on it, Lance turns back around just in time to witness the bathroom door swinging open to the sight of Shiro stepping out amid billowing steam, using the towel Lance left him not to cover himself as any normal person would, but to dry his hair and horns.
The squeal Lance lets out is high-pitched and embarrassing. He spins around to face the door again and covers his eyes for good measure, but pretending he didn’t get yet another eyeful of Shiro’s drool-worthy physique, now scrubbed clean and sparkling, is pointless.
“I left clothes for you in front of the door!” Lance says.
“Oh, thank you,” Shiro replies, sounding a little bit bemused. Is modesty not a thing in Hell either? Geez.
Lance gives Shiro a solid count to 30 before he turns around again. Thankfully, he’s wearing clothes this time. Hunk’s sweatpants show a number of inches of Shiro’s ankles, and even Lance’s biggest shirt is tight across his chest, but now at least Lance can look at him without constantly wondering what it would be like to rest his hand on those pecs and give them a little squeeze.
Clean, it’s easier to notice things about Shiro though. The scar across the bridge of his nose is dark and unfairly roguish, and his hair really is a pure, silky white. The parts of his skin Lance can see are pale but striped with harsh, painful-looking scars in all shapes and sizes to the point where Lance can’t even begin to imagine what might have caused them. Only Shiro’s right arm remains dark as though with ash, but Lance is certain that the skin there is that color permanently, especially if the unnaturally sharp claws at the ends of his fingers are anything to go off of. It looks menacing, but Shiro hasn’t give him a reason to be afraid of him yet, other than, well, the fact that he’s a demon.
But that doesn’t mean Lance should be a bad host.
“So, are you hungry?” Lance asks. “I think I might have some pizza bagels or something.”
“Actually,” Shiro says, “I’m mostly tired.” He gestures his blackened, clawed hand towards the couch. “Is it alright if I sleep there?”
“Yeah, sure thing,” Lance says. “I’ll grab you a blanket.”
But, of course, Lance’s only blanket is currently sitting on the floor of the bathroom, covered in ash and soot. Lance grabs a topsheet instead, but knows right away that it’s not going to be any match for the chill that creeps into his apartment at night. Without anything else to offer him, Lance goes back to Shiro and offers it up with an apologetic smile.
“You’re not going to murder me in the middle of the night, right?” Lance asks. “Harvest my soul or something?”
Shiro looks stricken at the suggestion.
“No, of course not!” As he takes the sheet from Lance, he makes intense eye contact that makes Lance want to fidget. “I promise no harm will come to you.”
Lance doesn’t know what makes him want to believe Shiro, especially because every myth and legend he’s ever heard about demons insists that they’re all excellent liars. But there’s something so incredibly earnest, genuine, about Shiro’s words, his expression, his body language, that Lance takes him for his word.
“Okay,” Lance says. “And you’re still on the hook for fixing up my car. Don’t forget that.”
Shiro nods seriously as he begins to lay himself down on the couch. “Of course.”
Lance leaves him to get comfortable as he goes to brush his teeth and change into his own pajamas. He takes his time with his nightly skin routine, savoring the few moments of solitude after everything that’s happened in the past few hours, and then heads back into the main room to make sure Shiro is settled in for the night.
Shiro is curled up on his side, his knees practically tucked into his chest and hanging off the edge of the cushion to fit. His head is propped at an awkward angle, resting one of his horns against the pancake-flat throw pillow Lance snagged for $3 at someone’s garage sale. As Lance watches, he burrows his body a little farther into the sagging cushions with a wiggle. He looks so pathetic scrunched in there, but he’s got a little smile on his face like it’s a goddamn Tempurpedic mattress.
Lance heaves a heavy sigh. “You can’t sleep there.”
Eyes wide, Shiro turns his head to look at Lance and half pushes himself up. “I’m sorry, I—”
“No, no,” Lance says. “I mean, it’s way too small for you. You should take my bed.”
“But where will you sleep then?” Shiro asks, frowning.
Lance shrugs. He’s willing to give up one night of comfortable sleep if it means this poor guy can get one. Presumably, there aren’t beds in Hell either, or if there are they’re probably made out of angry geese or Legos arranged so their corners are facing up.
“I’ll take the couch,” Lance says.
Shiro shakes his head vehemently.
“I refuse to sleep in your bed if you’re sleeping on the couch,” he replies. “I can’t take advantage of your kindness any more, after all you’ve already done for me.”
Lance bites his bottom lip. He glances from the couch, to the door of his bedroom, and then back again.
“Okay,” he finally says. “You know what? My bed’s not that small. We can both fit.”
Maybe. It’s on the narrow side of a full, and as Shiro sits up fully Lance eyes the width of his shoulders again. There’s definitely going to be some elbow bumping in the middle of the night, but Lance grew up crawling into bed with his siblings, and waking up to his nieces and nephews sprawled all over him isn’t uncommon when he stays with his family. Sharing a bed doesn’t really bother him.
Even if it is with some strange demon dude who fell out of the sky.
“Are you sure?” Shiro asks, but he’s already moving to stand.
“Yeah, it’s cool,” Lance says, padding towards his bedroom. He hears Shiro’s footsteps coming after him, and tries to kick some of the dirty laundry on the floor between the door and the bed into a corner. The room is only dimly lit by the streetlights filtering through his half-closed blinds, and he hopes Shiro doesn’t have good enough night vision to realize how much of a dump his room is right now.
Lance flops down on top of his mattress with a small oof , and then rolls over to the side against the wall before wriggling under the covers. Now that he thinks about it, he can’t remember the last time he washed his sheets, but he gets the feeling that Shiro won’t mind. He holds up the corner of the comforter in invitation and looks at Shiro expectantly.
Shiro hesitantly, gingerly sits on the side of the bed, and then carefully lies flat, shifting under the covers beside Lance. The old mattress squeals and dips under his weight, and Lance almost slides towards him, but quickly catches himself. Under the covers, heat radiates off of Shiro’s body, and Lance almost wants to bask in it like a cat.
Clearly mindful of his horns, Shiro rests his head against the pillow on his side of the bed, and lets out a long, pleased sigh. Lance can’t help but watch his face as he closes his eyes and smiles, gentle and peaceful.
“Thank you, Lance,” Shiro says.
Something weird happens in Lance’s chest just then. He wonders if he ate something bad.
“No problem, man,” Lance replies. “Let’s get some sleep.”
He rolls over to face the wall, and warmed by Shiro’s heat at his back, falls asleep almost instantly.
Hell is hot.
That’s both an understatement and a given, but it’s also not something you really, truly consider until you’re almost out. When compared to the occasional blessed breeze from the surface world, the sweltering, boiling, mind-melting heat feels infinitely more unbearable. It’s worse than baking in an oven, or being set on fire. It’s worse than living inside a furnace. It’s worse than anything else Keith has ever experienced, but so too, progressively, is every moment he spends here.
He digs his fingers in, and with not a small amount of effort, hoists himself up onto a rock ledge. Here, he allows himself to sit for a short rest. Demons in hell don’t drink water—aren’t allowed to—but Keith would do just about anything for even the boiling, sulfuric liquid that bubbles up from the hot dirt sometimes. He looks back down the way he came, watches the rivers of bright lava that pour out from fissures in the rock to the ground far, far below. He’s still nursing the raw, blistered skin on his hand from where one suddenly burst out at him just as he’d fixed his grip on a cranny in the cliff face. He doesn’t think about how far he could have fallen if he hadn’t already had a solid hold with his other hand.
It’s a mistake, he knows, but he looks up anyway. He’s getting closer, but he’s still impossibly, discouragingly far, the crumbling black spire of the mountain he must climb stretching up, up, up until it disappears into the darkness of the cavernous ceiling. He hasn’t even yet begun to run into the guardians of the entrance to Hell: the moaning, mindless, malicious spirits; the enormous, venomous serpents with fangs as long and thick as his arm; the vicious and feral hellhounds. He hasn’t slept, he hasn’t eaten, he hasn’t drank, but he must press on.
Keith wipes the sweat from his forehead with the bottom of his ragged, frayed shirt, and then uses the same spot to clean the edge of his blade, the one possession he was somehow allowed to retain from his time on Earth. He knows it’s going to come in handy soon. He needs to have it at the ready.
With that task done, Keith closes his eyes, takes a deep breath of the thick, smoky air, and pushes himself to his aching feet. He faces the steep incline once again, and putting one hand above the other, resumes his slow, agonizing climb.
heyyyy it's epi bringing you this week's chapter! i hope you're enjoying it so far :)
next time it's moth's turn again, on november 11! look forward to it 💖
Lance taps his pen against the desk beneath him, resting the side of his head on his shoulder as he pushes out a long and tired breath. He listens to the clock hanging high on the picture-cluttered wall across from him as it ticks incessantly, listens to the muffled traffic outside of the window and the creaky footsteps of tenants moving about the halls.
The apartment offices are located on the first floor of the building, just beyond the entryway and an uninhabited apartment that his mother uses for showings with potential new leasees. The office is crowded and roomy and decorated with newspaper clippings about the complex and the various lighthearted news around their city. There’s a faded, dirt-stained rug rolled out under the desk and extended all the way to the cracked door of the office on the other end. It’s an ornately-printed red and muddy brown, maybe once gray or white but nearly solid black at this point, after being neglected and trampled on over the many years that Lance has been welcomed by it when he came in here as a kid, then a teen, and eventually accepted the part-time job of assistant landlord when his mom needed some time off to run errands.
There are heavy, brown curtains hanging behind him and pulled open to let light in. They’ve stayed parted like that for so many years that Lance suspects that they might be stiff and crusted with years of dust that’s encapsulated them like fossils and rendered them unclosable if he wanted to give himself some darkness now so he could sneak a nap.
The desk at which he sits is heavy and chipped, but real oak. The drawers are faced with one lock each, paired with separate keys on the ring that his mother gave him this morning when he came down here to start his shift. Inside, he might find leases and payment receipts and complaints filed by tenants about their neighbors. He might find building inspection sheets and background check results and a wide variety of sensitive information that he could thumb through if he had the time or patience.
He doesn’t today, as he hasn’t for many days before now. He finds that he doesn’t particularly care about the goings-on behind closed doors here as long as everyone passes the application process and pays their rent on time.
The clock continues to tick. The sun moves slowly in wide swatches over the walls as a bale of particularly thick clouds momentarily obscures the light.
Lance massages a headache from his temples with one hand, gritting his teeth and staring blindly down at the paper in front of him, at his tapping pen, at the long scuff marks scribbled over the surface of the desk after years of constant use.
There’s a mini-fridge behind the desk that’s home, at times, to a myriad of different soft drinks and cheap brands of water bottles. He’s plucked a diet cherry-flavored drink from within it, left it sitting open in front of him for so long that he suspects that it might be warm and flat by the time that he lifts it again to his lips.
The half-empty candy bowl at the other end of the desk has been picked clean of every flavor of hard candy but black licorice. Lance will pretend that he doesn’t know which rude tenant came here and stole more than one piece at a time, if his mother comes in and asks. He’ll shrug and say that maybe that old bat Sanda got greedy or maybe Iverson forgot that he already took a piece while invested in another one of his long-winded army stories. But no, definitely not Lance. He has candy in his apartment, thank you very much, and there’s no point in looking underneath a few curiously blank papers crumpled up in the trash can because there definitely isn’t a pile of wrappers hiding anywhere in there.
But he’s bored and a little sick and hungry. He’s filled up on off-brand diet soda and dollar store candy with no breakfast and barely any sleep. He’d spent the entirety of last night forcing himself to face his own mortality and the pathetic realization that, ‘Oh shit, there’s a guy in my bed! There’s a hot guy in my bed! ’ until he’d discovered early in the morning when the sun had already risen and spread out long stripes of gold through his slatted shutters and along the small expanse of his walls—that yes, he hadn’t been able to sleep at all.
Every slow intake of breath through Shiro’s open lips and every expansion of his wide ribs during the night had kept Lance on high alert. In the shadows, in the darkness that settled over them and spread a quiet bubble of stopped time over Lance’s jittery emotions, he’d given himself the opportunity to really think about what he’d done. Shiro’s scars were blotted out in the blackness but the one across the bridge of his straight nose had almost seemed to twinkle like starlight in the night. His white hair and white brows and white eyelashes had looked soft and twined from silk and so touchable that Lance had carefully rolled over and positioned his eyes away from them, just to avoid the temptation altogether.
Shiro slept soundly and solidly with minimal noise and enough warmth wedged between them that Lance had felt as though he, too, had been given a small taste of Hell. He’d boiled until he’d kicked off the blankets and allowed the sharp chill of the late night to climb under the arms of his sleep shirt and wrap around his legs under his pants. He’d listened to Shiro breathing and felt the slow rise and fall of his chest in the movements of his thin mattress and heard the crinkling of the springs upset at the added weight.
And he’d wondered if he was making a mistake, and why, suddenly, it felt as though he’d never been so sure that he’d made the right decision in his entire life.
He’d remembered then, at dusk in the silent cold, accompanied by nothing but breathing and the angry metal joints of his old box spring, a stray dog that his brother Luis had brought home when he was a kid. They hadn’t kept it—couldn’t with the apartment-wide ban of pets and his mother’s incessant need to be fair—but they’d hosted it for an entire week until his father finally brought it to the local shelter. It was a tall, gangly thing, wire-haired with big, sad brown eyes and a funny little muzzle-mustache curled around its lips. Its big feet framed the skeletal sticks of its legs and thumped loudly when it walked as though it never learned how to move its body correctly. And he’d thought about that dog, how tentative it had been, how scared and unfamiliar with domesticity it had seemed that it had raised its jowls and growled low in its throat when his mother had set a bowl of water and chopped-up hot dogs in front of it, where they’d kept it in a small shed among the shovels and the lawn mower for the duration of its stay.
He’d thought about those big eyes and the sadness in them and how it flinched when his father lowered his hand to pet it. He thought about those sharp teeth and the depressing animal shelter commercials with that Sarah McLachlan song that he used to see all the time on TV. He wondered if he felt compelled to help someone like Shiro because of some repressed urge to be nicer to that dog than he had been as a kid. He’d wondered if perhaps all of this was simply an innate desire to mother something sad and beaten down and in such desperate need of a single helping hand.
He hadn’t felt any better after psychoanalyzing himself, but even now, hours later and half asleep, he can’t stop wondering if maybe he’s allowed some weird, juvenile need to be someone else’s hero to cloud his judgment when any sane person wouldn’t have allowed a creature like Shiro to trample right into the center of their life.
The clock continues to tick away across from him. In the corner of the room, a small bulbous television sits on a miniature TV stand, shut off and reflecting his own stupid face back to him. He looks miserable. He wonders if the tenants are avoiding the office today because they can sense his terrible mood.
On the desk between his elbows and under where he continues to tap his pen, there’s a single torn piece of notebook paper that he’s been aching over since he finished setting up for the day. There are names smudged in messy ink that are long since dried onto the page, crossed out and rewritten and finally organized into a neat list of “most likely” to “least likely” among his friends and acquaintances to give an unholy Hell spawn the opportunity to take them on a date.
He isn’t absolutely certain what sort of situation is going on between Hunk and Pidge, but in his continued refusal to address it, he added both of them to the list. They spend a lot of time alone together, sure, and they’re always inviting each other places without him and they live together, but… he just doesn’t even want to think about them kissing, or holding hands, or sleeping together in bed even as platonically as he did with Shiro last night. The thought alone makes his stomach turn so violently that he almost chokes up all of the congealed sugar currently churning in his upset belly, but he forces himself to think about the bigger picture, the master plan, and how easily and quickly and painlessly he might be able to pair Shiro off with some unwitting friend of his and wipe his hands of this whole mess.
He hadn’t remembered to ask Shiro this morning if he had a preference for any genders, but he isn’t absolutely certain that a demon could care either way. He’d scrawled Rolo near the top of his list only because he’s generally a sketchy guy, and he feels like a guy like Rolo would get off on having a relationship with what could surely be considered the most dangerous creature in the universe to have a relationship with. He’d probably like the horns. He’d tried to convince Lance to let his friend paint red and yellow flames on the side of his car when he’d first got it.
He’d probably say that Shiro’s inhuman sclera and the ash black of his arm were “badass”. But Shiro is such a gentleman that Lance has a hard time imagining the two of them actually getting along. Rolo likes dive bars and Cigarillos and drinking whiskey out of a glass bottle in a brown paper bag on his stoop in the early morning hours. He has weird scars on his arms that he used to tell Lance that he’d gotten in knife fights, and even as an adult, Lance isn’t sure if there was any truth to those claims or not.
Shiro, on the other hand… might have tortured people? Maybe he’s eaten souls. Maybe he’s devoured babies and kicked dogs and raised calamity in his path in order to deserve an eternal spot in Hell, but… he’s kind. And he’s sincere. And this morning, he told Lance to have a good day in a voice so sugary sweet that Lance had felt as though he was leaving his beloved housewife behind as he pursued another difficult workday at the factory. Like some kind of domestic wet dream. Like Shiro could truly embody something and pure and sweet as a supportive partner while carrying those jagged horns at the crown of each of his ears.
They just don’t feel like they’d work, personality-wise. And Lance isn’t sure why the idea of shoving Shiro off on a guy like Rolo bothers him so much, when in reality, the most important thing should be just getting this over with so he can fix his car.
He scrubs a hand over his face, dropping the pen down to the table and closing his eyes in frustration as it rolls gently back and forth before coming to a quiet, gradual stop.
Nyma is there too, as a girl who’s played with Lance’s feelings enough times that he’s positive that she wouldn’t mind giving Shiro a go as well. It makes him feel a little guilty, potentially setting Shiro up like that. Nyma lives more for the fun and the thrill and the experiences that life has to offer—not the shackles that she considers monogamy and responsibility to be. And Shay and Romelle from his classes and the beautiful Allura who keeps to herself in her studio apartment on the top floor—he can’t imagine garnering the courage to talk to any of them himself, but he wonders if Shiro would approach it with more ease. He seems tactful and gentlemanly. He seems like just the kind of suave guy who could sweep a refined girl off of her feet.
He realizes that the majority of his list is comprised of people from the complex or school. He realizes that his social life is in shambles if he can’t name a single friend who wasn’t just forced to talk to him because of shared classes or his mom taking their rent money. He groans, lowering his head to rest against the paper and the cool wood of the desk beneath it. The clock ticks. The creaky footsteps overhead continue to shuffle around.
Time passes, and Lance wakes up from an accidental nap three hours later when his mom comes downstairs to the office to relieve him and shoos him upstairs to get some real sleep.
Shiro is sitting quietly on the couch in the living room when Lance opens the front door.
His legs are tucked up against him, encircled by his broad arms and collected together enough that he’s taking the absolute minimum amount of space that a man his size could inhabit in Lance’s tiny apartment. Lance scrunches his brows and pulls back his lips in confusion when he sees him, suddenly suspicious that he seems to be on his best behavior in the same way that Lance himself used to pretend to be doing his homework or reading the dictionary when his mom came home and he’d accidentally broken something while playing too rough in the house.
Shiro smiles warmly, however, upon seeing him. He welcomes him home in a soft voice that’s barely loud enough to be heard over the roar of the old air conditioner. For a moment, Lance is conjured back to an alternate reality where Shiro is an Altar Boy or a Straight-A student. Where he sits at the front of a classroom with his hand raised high in the air to remind the teacher that she forgot to collect homework last night. There’s something very warped about this perception of Shiro, as he continues to wear the inhumanly dark eyes with the pointed, catlike irises. As the big hands tucked around his calves extend out in clawed fingers and the teeth behind his smiling lips are razor-sharp and deadly. It’s bizarre, then, to think of Shiro as a creature that’s deceptively dangerous-looking. Like a butterfly with the scary face printed over its wings, or a pufferfish bloating itself up to appear larger to any predators that wander too close.
Shiro, however, has nothing to gain from looking so scary. And he doesn’t even seem to realize it, doesn’t seem to comprehend even remotely that the sight of him still raises the hairs on the back of Lance’s neck and over the expanse of his arms. He just smiles, and welcomes Lance, and seems wholly unaware of what a surreal picture he is here, situated like a Halloween prop rigged with the wrong audio in the center of Lance’s otherwise perfectly normal living room.
Lance sighs, smiles back, and drops his bag at the door. Inside, he’s tucked his list of potential matches for Shiro, and he tells himself that he’ll worry about it later on, once he’s settled in and fully acclimated with the new vibe in his house: the clash of normal and abnormal. The understanding that yes, he wasn’t actually hallucinating last night and this is a real thing that’s actually happening to him and he invited this evil into his life without a single reasonable thought.
He just needs a minute to revel in the familiar messiness of his apartment and reassure himself that he isn’t still living in a dream. He just needs to settle in and allow himself to get more comfortable, then he can begin addressing the obvious elephant in the room named Shirogane who is still watching him with that dazzling small smile.
For now, he makes his way into the bedroom to change into some more comfortable clothes. He’s bewildered to see the bed made for what must be the first time since he moved in. The sheets are tucked tightly under the mattress when he checks them. The comforter is so smoothed out that even the most persistent of wrinkles seem to have been worked out of the fabric. His clothes, previously littered around the floor, have been folded and placed neatly in the basket next to the closet door. His notebooks and rogue papers have been piled together next to his computer at his desk.
Even the hardwood feels cleaner, as though someone went over it with a mop and gave it time to dry. The wood looks lighter, rubbed free of stains and muck. Cleansed of dirtiness that he wasn’t even aware existed there until he gives himself a moment to inspect how different it looks now.
He shakes his head. So Shiro cleaned the room, okay, fine. That was nice of him. He drags in a deep breath and pulls his shirt over his head, feeling a little guilty as he tosses it haphazardly into the basket and tugs a more comfortable one from the closet. His pants and socks join the shirt in the basket. He changes into a pair of sweatpants and toes on his slippers, bewildered, still, but shoving out into the hall towards the bathroom.
Which… when he enters a moment later, is also spotless.
The curtain is pulled back from the shower, and the tiles have been cleaned so thoroughly that they’re lacking even the off-colored white grout that Lance was positive must have been permanent when he moved in.
The kitchen, too, when he shuffles in there has been pristinely wiped clean. It almost sparkles—his semi-perpetual dirty dishes have been scrubbed and dried and tucked away in the cabinets.
The floor lacks the usual stickiness that he always neglects to wipe away. The table is decluttered and the only discernible flaw in the room is the trash that hasn’t been taken outside to the dumpster. He gapes at everything, turns around and nearly jumps out of his skin when he’s suddenly face-to-barrel-chest with Shiro.
“I—I’m sorry, I couldn’t help myself,” Shiro tells him, reaching out gingerly to steady Lance with timid hands on his shoulders as Lance tips back his head to stare slack-jawed up at him. “I got bored while I waited for you to come home so I thought that I’d entertain myself…”
Lance’s brows shove close together. He opens and shuts his mouth twice before the scratchy words finally manage to weasel out of his throat.
“W-was cleaning the most fun thing that you could think of? Seriously?”
Shiro bites his lip, color rising to his cheeks as his eyes leave Lance’s face and spread out over the spotless expanse of the perfectly polished kitchen.
“I’ve missed having a home,” he says then, soft and sad and distant in a way that pinches hard in the recesses of Lance’s chest. “There were a lot of things that I found tedious and aggravating when I was human, but… I missed them once they were gone. It was nice to feel human again. It was nice to clean something and find that it was still clean moments later. Everything is filthy in Hell.”
Lance coughs a laugh despite himself, hand shooting up moments later to cover his lips in mortification.
Shiro doesn’t seem to mind, however, and barely seems to register at all that Lance has made a noise. He’s looking at Lance’s small apartment with an intense focus now, as though picking apart each tile and each grain of the wood under his feet. As though peering through Lance’s things and seeing, instead, a parallel version of their lives where this apartment is a home that he’s lived in as a human all this time.
They’re quiet here, for a moment. Lance, feeling profoundly guilty and sad, and Shiro, admiring Lance’s modest living situation as though he’s Little Orphan Annie finally coming home to Oliver Warbucks’s extensive mansion. As though this could be the best situation that he could have ever hoped for. As though the monotony that Lance felt tethered down by, limited by and trapped by could be the freedom and redemption and the happily ever after that Shiro must have kept alive inside of him all those years as he boiled in the bowels of Hell.
Lance opens his mouth to speak, to say anything to make this better. He feels words thrumming inside of him like hummingbird’s wings, feels himself suddenly electrified by the need to reach out and forge a connection between himself and Shiro. To make Shiro look less sad. To reassure him that the living world is a permanent home for him now, and that if Lance has any say in it, he won’t ever return to that terrible, fiery place again.
His fingers ghost over Shiro’s hands on his shoulders. He finds himself drawn in by the dark depths of Shiro’s glassy eyes.
He’s interrupted by the sound of Shiro’s belly unceremoniously growling, loud and desperate and hungry, in the small breadth of silence between them.
Lance’s small, sad smile spreads out in a wide grin. His sputtering heart and broken attention suddenly focus solely on the safer possibility of feeding Shiro, in the interest of avoiding all of the troublesome thoughts and feelings that have bubbled up inside of him. Yes, lunch. Lunch is good. Lunch isn’t admitting that he feels so attached to Shiro being here in less than twenty-four hours that he’d be devastated if Shiro had to go back to Hell. Lunch means that they can’t talk while they’re chewing. Lunch means that he can’t say anything idiotic while his mouth is full.
The color on Shiro’s cheeks is adorable in a way that feels forbidden and embarrassing when Lance tries to put words to the feelings currently churning in his chest. He shoves them further down, smothers them and pulverizes them as he attempts to recall all of the ingredients that he’s tucked away in his fridge. He claps his hands together, pivoting around and making a short dash to the fridge.
“Sit down,” he tells Shiro cheerfully, “I’ll make you the best human meal that you’ve ever had.”
Shiro obeys without argument or question. The coolness emanating from the fridge when Lance tears open the door does little to quell the new heat suddenly sprung up under his cheeks.
Contrary to his promise, Lance makes peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and adds potato chips to the side. He pours both of them glasses of grape juice with the remainder left in the bottle in his fridge, and feels suddenly deceptive for promising what must have sounded to Shiro like a vast feast and not just the best that a college kid could offer him when he’s been putting off grocery shopping for nearly a week.
However, Shiro is borderline ravenous when Lance places the plate in front of him and takes his seat. He tries his hardest, it seems, to be refined and have some semblance of manners, but he eats quickly, finishing off his plate so fast that Lance has only managed to take a single bite from one half of his sliced sandwich before Shiro is drawing a finger over the plate to catch the chip crumbs.
Lance slides his plate towards Shiro, grinning around the food in his cheeks when Shiro looks up at him as though he’s just offered him a platter filled with gold.
“Eat up,” he says. “I can make more.”
Surprisingly, Shiro doesn’t argue. He eats the second plate just as quickly as he finished the first, and Lance watches him as he nibbles on his own food, as he wonders if he’s ever been so hungry in his entire life and feels, once again, profoundly sad.
He finishes his half sandwich, and true to his word, makes four more for Shiro before it seems that his appetite has been placated. They find themselves then sitting at the table among their empty plates, Shiro having finished off his grape juice and Lance having offered him an unopened, full bottle of cranberry to replace it that he accepted graciously. Lance wonders now, as he watches him filling his third glass, if he’s going to eat like this for every meal during the remainder of his stay here, or if perhaps Lance’s paychecks will be spared once he finally catches up on sleep, and baths, and the nourishment that he was obviously lacking in Hell.
It’s a sad thought, and one that reminds Lance suddenly of the list that he’d compiled and tucked inside his bag. He rises momentarily to fetch it, dropping a hand to pat Shiro’s shoulder as he passes and wondering with hot cheeks why he’s already so comfortable touching him. His rubbery hands are clumsy as he tugs the paper from a pocket of his bag. His slippers slide on the newly-cleaned floor, and he nearly faceplants in his haste to return excitedly to the table and present to Shiro the results of his tireless research.
He situates himself once again, spreading the wrinkles on the paper out with both palms flat against the table, pressing his feet to the tile and dragging his chair closer before he turns his eyes up in Shiro’s direction. He’s tucked his pen into the collar of his shirt, and he reaches up then to grab it, clicking the end of it and lowering it to the page and studying the names that he’s collected there as though he hasn’t been agonizing over them all morning.
“So,” he says, brief and suddenly professional, serious enough that he can feel Shiro’s eyes snap from the paper and steady solidly on the side of his face, “I guess the first thing is… what’s your type?”
His cheeks continue to smolder. Shiro doesn’t smile or laugh, but Lance can’t shake the feeling that he’s suddenly shouldered the role of cheap speed-dating representative in a game show featuring all of his close friends and acquaintances. And one demon, he can’t forget. He could call it “Hot Date” or “One Hell of a Boyfriend”. They could give away consolation prizes in the form of one hour of tanning in the depths of Hell to everyone who doesn’t win a date with this very eligible and deadly bachelor.
He wonders if he’ll lose any relationships over this. He wonders if that’s really worth getting his car fixed.
And he decides that, yes, it probably is. Everyone’s loyalty can be bought at a price, he supposes. His just happens to be a lot more affordable than most of the people that he’s selling out.
Shiro’s eyes wander back down to the list. His hands rest gently on the table on either side of his empty plate. His dark sclera bound back twin images of the words that Lance has scrawled down, his sharp teeth worrying his bottom lip, his otherworldly horns sprouted out behind him and stabbing like dark scores of ink into Lance’s apartment as though someone has taken a snapshot of him and scribbled over the picture with a pen. It’s still strange, sitting here with him, with that onyx hand close enough that Lance could reach out and touch it, and see if it would crumble under his fingers like tightly-compacted ash. It’s weird to realize that he woke up this morning and this dream, still, relents, and that it seems that Shiro’s appearance into his life is more of a long-term hallucination than sleep playing tricks on his psyche.
Deep down, growing shallower, he realizes that this is a real thing that’s actually happening. He knows that he’s made a deal with a devil and he’s approaching it as though he’s simply asking a classmate what they’ll write their joint-presentation about. He knows that he’s behaving so blithely about this that maybe even Shiro is waiting for the other shoe to drop—for the consequences of his actions to catch up with his irresponsible compulsions, and for him to finally, belatedly experience the meltdown that he should have partaken in last night when Shiro pulverized his car.
Maybe that reality won’t sink in until his parents see the wreckage. Maybe he’ll continue living in denial about all of this until it’s over and done with and Shiro eats his soul or possesses him or something.
Or maybe, secretly, he’s just a little bit excited that something interesting is actually happening to him, for the first time that he can remember since he was a little kid.
Shiro still seems to be chewing on his response to Lance’s earlier question. He’s biting his lip still, ivory brows drawn close together as his dark eyes train on the murky reflection of his face beamed back up at him in his plate. He draws in a breath, flicking his gaze to the sink and the jelly-covered knife rested at the edge of it, to the overfilled trash can and the locked door leading down a stairwell to the courtyard and the dumpsters within it. He raises his human hand and scratches at the nape of his neck.
Lance realizes, maybe too late, that he seems uncomfortable, but for the life of him, he just couldn’t have imagined that demons, of all things, could become so easily discomforted.
“H-hey, uh, listen,” Lance says tentatively, sucking in a shallow breath and resisting the urge to reach forward and rest a comforting hand on top of Shiro’s. “I’m not here to judge you, alright? I just think this whole demon bet thing would go a lot smoother if we can narrow down the potential candidates here. Gender, Race, whatever—it’s fine! I know a lot of people, man. This apartment is full of assholes who have to talk to me when they wanna pay their rent.”
The levee breaks and so does Lance’s resistance, and his hand finds Shiro’s despite his feeble need to stay at least somewhat objective. He can’t help it, okay? He doesn’t have a heart made of stone. He can tell that the guy is having a hard time, and he can’t just sit here and watch him agonize without trying to reassure him that everything will be okay.
Shiro raises his eyes again. There’s color risen once more to his cheeks, his eyes big and sad and watery like twin cups of black ink. Lance offers him a reassuring smile, and slowly, Shiro smiles back.
“O-okay,” Shiro says finally, averting his eyes as his cheeks fan a deeper, more vibrant pink. “I like… men. I’m not sure if I have much of a preference beyond that. I was only in a relationship with one man as a human, and it wasn’t as though that sort of thing was the norm back then, so I didn’t… date a lot.”
Lance nods, burying his teeth into the side of his cheek. He draws in another breath, lifting his hand from Shiro’s and grasping his pen again, scribbling out a sizable portion of the list by eliminating all of the women. He doesn’t tell Shiro that things have changed, because he suspects that he’s figured that out. He doesn’t belittle him by telling him that he’s brave or that he’s a sympathetic case, or that things shouldn’t have once been hard. He tries to keep his mind on the task at hand and away from any daunting conversations that might distract from it.
He’s not here to be Shiro’s therapist or his friend. He’s here to help him fall in love so he can become human and get a job and afford car repairs.
He shakes his head, clearing his throat and flicking his eyes over the remaining names on his list.
“So… no specific body types? Like… tall and skinny, or more to love? Or a hunky beefcake like yourself?”
That last part slips out on accident, and while Lance suddenly finds himself sweltering in the self-made flames of his own personal, embarrassing Hell, Shiro doesn’t even react to it.
“I would like someone kind,” Shiro tells him, “perhaps… someone very passionate. Maybe a man who has confidence in his abilities that can sometimes border on cockiness, but… someone with a good heart, with solid morals, someone who stands by his word and his friends, and… doesn’t give up, no matter what. Someone who won’t give up on me either.”
Lance’s brows draw in together. His mouth drops open and he tries desperately for a moment to think of a single person who he knows who’s ever given him the idea that they “won’t ever give up” or someone with “confidence bordering on cockiness”. He blows out the held breath in his throat, spitting a small laugh along with it and marking a few names from his list.
“That’s pretty specific. You got someone in mind?”
Shiro’s cheeks darken even further. His eyes widen, brows raise, and in an instant, he turns his gaze away once again. He’s sitting straighter now, suddenly looking every bit as guilty as childhood Lance had when he’d pretended to do his homework or read the dictionary when his mom came home from work.
It takes Shiro a moment to regain his composure. Lance finds it difficult not to laugh at him, as he watches in confusion as Shiro turns just about every shade of red that a person might be capable of becoming.
“No, sorry, I didn’t— he… he doesn’t have to have all of those traits, I was just thinking out loud. I had no one in mind, I promise. I… I wasn’t thinking of anyone in particular.”
Lance sucks in the side of his cheek, not totally convinced but also not willing to press this issue any further. He nods then, crossing out a few more names and dropping his pen, then lifting the paper higher so he can inspect the people left listed down the page.
Ryan is the first person left—a young Marine who rents a room here as more of a storage space and a makeshift studio than any home that he spends a substantial amount of time in. He does freelance photography when he’s home from basic training. Lance is often bewildered by the picturesque shots lined up and monotoned in their glossy frames around his tastefully decorated apartment, when he stops there for maintenance or to pick up the rent.
Beneath him, under a few crossed out selections, rests Ulaz: an older man but a handsome and charming gentleman who Lance could reasonably label a “silver fox” if he were questioned about the decision of adding him to the lineup. He’s a clean-cut and respectful man from someplace on the map that Lance can’t pronounce the name of. He’s well-traveled and polite to a fault. Distant, at times, but clouded with enough mystery that Lance can’t help but feel a little bit out of his element, mystified and charmed every time that he finds himself on the receiving end of one of Ulaz’s brief and fleeting smiles.
He pays his rent in intermittent clumps of five or six months at a time. He spends a lot of time fretting over the window boxes that he’s installed on the railing of his balcony, where he grows a myriad of exotic flowers. Sometimes Lance can hear classical music thrumming through the walls of his apartment when he walks by. For a moment, he imagines Shiro enjoying some kind of fancy imported coffee with Ulaz as they watch the sunrise together and tend to the flowers, or Shiro splayed out naked on one of his varying plush couches as Ulaz paints one of many artful nude portraits of him that he might keep hung up in one of the locked rooms of his three-bedroom.
And beneath him, further down, Lance finds Thace, and Curtis, and Lotor—all relatively private tenants with whom he’s exchanged maybe half a dozen words since they moved in. Thace jogs early in the morning and late at night before bed. He’s soft-spoken but ruggedly handsome and he always gives notice if his rent will be late.
Lotor—Lance grits his teeth. He doesn’t like the guy one bit, feels as though the property value sinks by centimeters every moment that a slimeball like that is allowed to exist between these walls, but he certainly can’t deny that Lotor is at least passionate about… something. He just has an air about him, Lance thinks, of a person who knows what he’s about and embraces it undeniably. He’s insufferable, sure, but maybe Shiro would like a guy like that. Cocky is definitely a word that Lance would use to describe him, but maybe Shiro would see it as unrivaled confidence. Maybe Shiro’s taste in men is just worse than Lance’s is, and Lance isn’t really here to judge him for that.
Curtis is more difficult to put his finger on. He hasn’t lived here quite long enough for Lance to interact with him more often than a simple hellos and good mornings and thank you very muches when the guy drops off his checks. But he’s quiet and clean and aside from a burst pipe a month after he moved in, Lance’s family hasn’t needed to have more of a relationship with him than what a tenant-landlord relationship is supposed to be.
But Lance also knows that none of these men see a steady stream of partners filtering through their doors. None of them have company over very often, and none of them seem to be tied down by another person, for all that he’s been able to learn about them over the time that they’ve lived in this building together. He wouldn’t say that he keeps a close eye on any of the tenants, but he settles into a routine with all of them. Kinkade isn’t home enough to go on dates. Ulaz is a more introverted eccentric. Thace’s great love is the gym where he’s held membership for the last fifteen years, and Lotor spends most of his free weekends going to art galleries and snobby elbow-rubbing parties that he brags about loudly every time that Lance finds himself in unfortunate earshot. And Curtis is just quiet, keeps his head down. And his apartment is just down the hall from Lance’s, so Lance knows from experience that he doesn’t host many guests.
He finds that he’s narrowed the vaguest recollection of ideas down to a more reasonable list. He feels a little bit proud of himself when he admires his handiwork, wondering idly which of these men might be Shiro’s ticket out of the frying pan and straight into the cushy lifestyle of the human world.
He stares at the names for a moment longer, realizing eventually that Shiro must be so quiet because he’s waiting for some affirmation that Lance has found him the perfect potential partner. Lance clears his throat, setting down the paper and turning to inspect Shiro next to him.
He studies the horns and the dark sclera and the pointed teeth just barely visible behind his lips. The dark hand rested on the table is unmoving right now, but still obvious and startling if he thinks about meeting Shiro out of the context of witnessing him barreling hundreds of miles per hour in a burning meteor down to the earth.
He bites his lip. Shiro’s brows lower in worry.
Lance pushes out a short, low breath.
“I think your appearance is going to be a problem,” he says. “I mean, you’re gorgeous and everything, but it’s not Halloween, and no one is going to feel comfortable talking to you when you look like you should be headlining some black metal music festival.”
Shiro tips his head to the side. He raises a single clawed finger to his lips and drops his eyes closed.
“That won’t be a problem. I can camouflage my demonic features whenever necessary.”
And he does, just like that. Lance watches in shock as the horns shrink down and the claws subside, as the darkness in his arm fades from deep onyx to a fleshier, pinker and more natural hue that matches the rest of his body. When he opens his eyes again and speaks, Lance is strangely put off, seeing his straight rows of teeth and white sclera, realizing that this must have at one point in time been what Shiro looked like before he did… whatever it was that earned him his place in Hell.
And he’s gorgeous—somehow even more gorgeous than before. Lance finds that his tongue is too fat and his words are too dry and scratchy and his eyes can’t peel themselves away from Shiro’s chiseled jawline long enough to even hope to articulate any of the words currently lodged in his throat.
“O-oh, oh, um. Okay, g-great!”
His voice pitches with an unattractive squeak.
“I guess, uh… We should go shopping today then? Um… get you some… better clothes. Clothes that fit and uh… accentuate all of your… assets.”
Shiro doesn’t seem to understand exactly what he means by that, and Lance can’t say that he’s looking forward to making even more of a fool of himself when he witnesses Shiro later in shirts that hug his solid muscle tightly, in pants that artfully frame his round, perfect ass and his strong, shapely legs.
He can’t say that he’s dreading it either, can’t say that any situation resulting from this hare-brained decision to help the most beautiful man that he’s ever seen fall in love with someone else won’t end in some kind of mental lapse for himself.
But he thinks about his car, about his parents who saved up to afford it. He thinks about Shiro’s desperate plight and how kind he’s been and how deserving he seems, right now, of a second chance.
He shoves up from the table. He has some savings in a piggy bank in his room, set aside for a rainy day, or the last wall of defense between himself and his poor, defenseless savings account if he ever finds something that he wants enough to drop some serious money for it.
They’ll go to the thrift store first, he thinks. He’ll get a feel for the style that Shiro feels the most comfortable wearing.
This won’t kill him, surely. He won’t die of blood loss of embarrassment or mortification at every humiliating thing that manages to tumble unceremoniously from his stupid lips as he watches Shiro modeling a myriad of styles and settles eventually on whatever clothes will make him the most attractive suitor for his many potential new lovers.
They leave together once Lance gets dressed. Shiro, dressed in Hunk’s ill-fitting sweatpants and Lance’s tight shirt, somehow still turning heads in the best way on the street as they walk. Lance, wondering if Shiro is enough of a babe that his work is already cut out for him, as the clerks at every store seem to direct their questions and welcomings to Shiro and ignore Lance altogether.
But it’s fun, dressing up, joking around. Finding himself as the center of Shiro’s attention for the duration of an entire afternoon. This man who he knows would be entirely out of his league if he were even in the running here. This man who probably wouldn’t have spared him a second glance if they were just normal people.
As the evening passes and Shiro tries on countless outfits and settles on six that he really likes, Lance definitely isn’t having what might be best defined as “the time of his life”.
It’s just a bet. It’s just a trade, it’s just a very big favor that he’s doing for a demon that crashed down to Earth and destroyed his car.
Nothing else. Nothing more than that. If Lance finds himself staring at Shiro just a little bit longer than he should be, it’s only because he’s still having trouble adjusting to the sudden, unexpected turn that his life has taken since last night.
Any other emotions are discarded and squished far down to the very bottom pits of his psyche. Shiro is handsome and he’s funny and he’s nice, but he’s off-limits.
Lance just needs to see this through to the end. He just needs to get his car fixed. And someday, months from now when Shiro is happy and rolling in money and funding repairs to Lance’s vehicle, he can laugh at how charmed he was by him this first day. At how silly he was for even a moment thinking that someone like Shiro could look at him in the same way that he’d looked when he’d described that confident, borderline cocky stranger who would never give up on him, no matter what.
Chapter by epiproctan
lol i forgot to update this yesterday...my b!! please enjoy :)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Alright.” Lance slams the open notebook down on the tabletop. “Time to commence Operation Hot Date.”
The scrambled eggs in front of Shiro are half-demolished already. Lance would be impressed by that, seeing as he’d only been away from the table long enough to go to his desk and come back with the notebook, except that he worked hard to scramble those eggs and also eggs cost a small but non-negligible amount of money and he knows Shiro’s going to want more when he’s done.
Instead of taking the time to be exasperated, Lance lets it slide and points to the ruled paper where he wrote their very detailed plan last night, finger landing just above where it reads “Step 2: ????”.
“We’ve already wasted an entire day,” he says. “Which means we only have thirty left. Today we need to get cracking on step one: talk to a cute boy.”
He looks back up at Shiro just in time to witness him shovel a frankly impressive forkful of egg into his mouth. He waits for Shiro to chew and swallow before assessing his reaction.
“Did you have a particular cute boy in mind?” Shiro asks, looking up at him, those dark, warm eyes curious.
Lance scoffs. “You doubt me? Of course I do.”
From between two pages further back in the notebook, Lance fishes out a picture he snagged from Facebook and printed out on his rickety black-and-white printer the night before, just because it made the whole thing seem more official. He places a blurry, blown-up photo of Ryan Kinkade in front of Shiro’s plate.
“What do you think?” Lance asks. “He’s a real looker, right?”
Shiro examines the picture, leaning over to squint at it.
“He is handsome,” Shiro agrees, then looks back up at Lance. “What’s he like?”
Hm. That’s a good question.
“Um,” Lance says, finally sitting down in his own chair at the table. “I’m not sure, actually.” He picks up his fork and jabs it at Shiro. “But that’s up to you to find out.”
Shiro nods, thoughtful and musing. He pushes his now-bare plate away in order to pick up the flimsy printer paper. The top corners droop in his hands under their own weight.
“You really believe he could fall in love with me?” Shiro asks.
“Sure,” Lance says. “Who wouldn’t fall in love with you?”
Ryan Kinkade is home for the next few weeks. Lance knows this for sure because he’s always polite enough, at least, to let them know when he’ll be gone, in case something goes wrong in his unit. It’s the perfect amount of time to meet a gorgeous stranger and have a whirlwind romance, complete with an impassioned confession the night before he departs again. He’s probably in his apartment right now, at this very moment, waiting for something thrilling and exciting to happen to him, to fill his lonely, boring days here in this town. Like for an exceedingly attractive hunk of a man to knock on his front door and ask him on a date.
Because, realistically, who wouldn’t want that? Lance knows he would.
So basically, the improved plan is this: Lance is going to lead Shiro on down to Ryan’s door. Shiro’s going to knock. Ryan is going to open it and fall in love at first sight. Then Shiro’s problem will be off of Lance’s hands and Shiro will get to stay on Earth and fix Lance’s car. It’s such a simple plan that there’s absolutely no way it won’t work. Lance is sure of it.
“What should I say to him when he opens the door?” Shiro asks as they walk down the stairs together towards Ryan’s floor.
“I don’t know,” Lance replies. This isn’t rocket science. Don’t they have dating in Hell? “Something flirty! Your best pickup line.”
“I don’t have a best pickup line,” Shiro says, frowning. “I don’t have any pickup lines. What is a pickup line?”
Lance sighs, exasperated. “Okay, fine. Try something like, ‘Hey there, I’m your new neighbor. Is that a mirror in your pocket? Because I can see myself in your pants.’”
The stairwell is silent for a long moment except for the sound of their footfalls echoing back to them as they descend the stairs.
“Are you sure something like that will work?” Shiro asks, and the amount of pure skepticism he funnels into his words would be impressive if Lance wasn’t so indignant about it.
“Of course!” Lance replies. “Why wouldn’t it?”
“Hm,” replies Shiro, and he doesn’t sound nearly as confident as Lance feels.
But that’s okay, because Lance will be right there with him. Not right there with him, like he’s Shiro’s babysitter, or a mom waiting outside the school in a minivan to pick up her 6th-grade son while he’s asking the girl from his social studies class if she wants to go to the local dinky ice skating rink with him on Friday night. He’ll be there in spirit, mostly. But also he’s holding the stepladder so he can pretend to be fiddling with the light fixtures down the hallway while Shiro is talking to Ryan.
So yeah, kind of like Shiro’s babysitter. But it’s just easier this way.
They get to Ryan’s floor and Lance leads Shiro down the hall and to the door that Ryan lives behind. There’s an air of excitement about the both of them. Or maybe it’s more anxiety and tension in Shiro’s case, because it’s evident in the way Shiro’s carrying himself, his shoulders tight and his brow a little furrowed. Honestly, more than anything, he looks perplexed, but Lance will let it go because it’s cute on him, manifesting as a confused little pout on his lips and one eyebrow raised slightly more than the other.
“Alright,” Lance whispers. “You’ve got this, man. Just be yourself.”
Shiro still looks not entirely sure of himself, but he gives a solid nod and reshuffles his feet so he’s facing the door. Lance takes this as his cue to relocate a handful of yards down the hall, setting up the stepladder and climbing up to the top platform of it before reaching towards the light fixture and pretending to mess around with it.
With one last sideways glance in his direction, Shiro squares his shoulders, raises his hand, and gives a solid knock knock knock against the wooden door. It’s attention-grabbing, but not too insistent. Lance nods to himself, admiring the strength and timing of Shiro’s knocking. He thinks that’s a knock he’d probably find really sexy. If he was Ryan Kinkade, that is.
Nothing happens for a long moment. Shiro stands still and strong, exuding confidence despite how Lance knows he must be feeling, despite the misgivings he was just expressing. He’s that kind of guy. Cool in the face of adversity.
But when more time passes and the door doesn’t open, he turns in Lance’s direction and gives him a big shrug.
“ Knock again ,” Lance mouths, and mimes knocking against the wall before fiddling with the light some more.
He hears Shiro’s knock again, definitive, powerful, strong, and waits for the sound of footsteps inside and the door swinging open.
Instead, he hears footsteps from somewhere else.
“Do you need something?”
Shiro turns, and Lance’s vision follows. Ryan is walking down the hallway towards them, a camera bag tucked under his arm, looking expectantly at Shiro.
“No,” Shiro says. “I mean, yes. Hello. How are you?”
Ryan comes to a halt before Shiro. Lance can’t deny that they’d make a striking couple. They’re both very handsome, kind of muscular, a little rugged. Tall. Lance can imagine them going to the gym together to do some kickboxing, or maybe getting in a Jeep and driving out into the woods for a weekend with a tent and a German Shepard. Shiro would be an amazing model for Ryan’s photography, too. Lance wonders how down Shiro would be to take some tasteful nudes.
But Ryan clearly did not just have the same vision of the future as Lance did. He looks at Shiro coolly and sidesteps him.
“I don’t want to sign your petition or whatever. Sorry,” he says, pushes past, unlocks his door, and disappears inside.
Wait. What. That was not how this was supposed to go. Eyes wide, Shiro looks down the hall to Lance in a panic.
“ After him! ” Lance mouths, jabbing a finger towards the door.
“Wait!” Shiro calls after Ryan. “Please hold on a minute.”
The door catches just before it slams shut in Shiro’s face and hovers, ajar just the slightest sliver. Waiting. Lance watches, anxious and fascinated, as Shiro takes a deep breath from his lungs, expanding his big, wide chest even further.
“My name is Shirogane,” he says. “I’m a demon from Hell who has come to Earth in order to—”
The door slams with a bang .
“I’m telling you, man,” Lance says. “If you had just used my mirror pickup line you wouldn’t have had a problem.”
Shiro slurps noisily at his chocolate milkshake, impressively petulant and pouty for a tall, broad-shouldered demon. Lance had needed some kind of pick-me-up after watching such a spectacular wipeout, and he figured Shiro wouldn’t mind the sugar either, so Lance had steered a shocked and disappointed Shiro down the stairs, across the street, and towards the McDonald’s on the corner.
It’s a beautiful day out. Here in the small park close to the apartment building, sunlight drips golden through bright leaves. Birds swoop and flit and chatter, gliding from tree to tree, dipping to the grass and back. A stray cloud lends the infinite blue of the sky some contrast, and the well-kept lawn is stirred gently by some sweet-smelling breeze. This is Lance’s favorite bench that they’re taking up a good two-thirds of, half shaded and half in the sun so he can move if he’s feeling too hot or too cold.
Right now he’s sitting on the cool side, watching Shiro in the sun becoming progressively less unhappy with each sip of his milkshake. His expression clears as he follows the motion of fluttering bird wings with his eyes. His spine straightens with each deep breath he takes of the fresh air.
But Lance isn’t quite done with the situation yet.
“Seriously, what were you thinking?” he asks. “You can’t just tell people you’re a demon!”
Shiro looks thoughtful as he tugs the straw into his mouth, and then shrugs. “I thought the truth would be best.”
Sighing hopelessly, Lance shakes his head. “That’s not romantic or sexy, Shiro.”
Well, okay. Maybe being a demon is a little sexy. But that’s not the point here.
“How will I make someone truly fall in love with me if they don’t know I’m a demon?” Shiro asks.
“I don’t know,” Lance replies. “We’ll figure that part out later. Right now the important thing is to just hit it off with someone.”
Shiro nods and shakes his disposable cup to resettle the contents. He sucks up some milkshake and swallows before replying, and when he does he’s frowning again.
“I really ruined things with Ryan, didn’t I?”
Something about the expression on his face causes a deep twinge in Lance’s chest. His brow is creased with concern and heavy with disappointment, and Lance finds himself wanting to brush the trouble right off of him with the pads of his thumbs.
“It’s okay,” he says, light and casual as he can manage, hoping the tone relieves some of Shiro’s worry. “There are plenty of fish in the sea.”
Shiro looks at him with his head cocked to the side, and Lance is sure he’s questioning in his head what the ocean has to do with anything. Lance almost laughs, endeared, but he makes an effort to focus on the matter at hand.
“We do have to work on your game though,” he says. “You can’t just tell a guy you’re from Hell.”
“What should I say, then?” Shiro asks.
Lance places his now-empty milkshake on the bench seat next to him and taps his chin.
“I’d teach you some more of my award-winning pickup lines, but I don’t know if any of them really suit you,” Lance says. “You’re going to have to look inside yourself for that. But….”
He leans back to regard Shiro more. The clothes that he bought yesterday fit him well in a way that almost makes Lance envious, snug and stretched in all the right places. The casual, self-assured positioning of his body could belong to a model, and so could the sharp line of his jaw. His white hair glints in the light of the sun, his warm eyes bright and expressive.
“You could always just try introducing yourself. Do what feels comfortable. Just, ‘Hey, I’m Shiro. How’s it going?’ Nothing too fancy, and definitely nothing about Hell.”
Shiro nods intently, and Lance can practically hear the scratch of pencil on paper as he scribbles notes in his mind.
“Well, what about you?” Shiro asks. “What did you do?”
“What did I do?”
“Yes. When you first met your partner.”
“My partner?” Lance echoes, eyebrows shooting up. “Oh, no, no, I don’t really have anyone like that right now.” He laughs nervously. “Haven’t in a while, actually….”
Shiro tilts his head again, bemused. “Oh, I’m sorry. You said they call you Loverboy Lance, so I presumed….”
Lance barks out yet another awkward chuckle, darting his eyes away from Shiro towards the ground, scratching at his elbow with his opposite hand. “Oh yeah, no, not right now. I mean. Yeah. I don’t really.”
He snaps his gaze back to Shiro’s then.
“But I am good at this stuff,” he says, because he doesn’t want Shiro to think he’s put his fate in the wrong hands or anything. He’s determined to see this through, for Shiro. And the last thing he needs is Shiro deciding to bring his business to someone else before he fixes Lance’s car.
“So don’t give up yet, okay?” Lance goes on. “You’ve got a lot going for you. Ryan probably wouldn’t have been any good for you anyway. He’s too serious. Maybe you need someone a little more fun….”
Shiro contemplates this for a long, quiet moment, watching the birds and the squirrels and the leisurely swaying grass. He looks so human like this, his face touched with golden sunlight, illuminating the sharp line of his jaw, the high, prominent cheekbones, the tip of his nose and the scar that bridges it. It turns his hair to spun silver where it hits, each strand thin and sleek and shiny like spiderwebs. Lance wonders if Shiro was this handsome during his previous time on Earth, or if maybe it’s a demon thing to take a form that’s appealing to humans in order to make it easier to participate in whatever demonly activities are necessary while here.
“Maybe,” he agrees after a moment. “But I could probably learn to love anyone, if it meant I could stay here with them.”
Something about the quiet, subtle tone Shiro puts into the words pulls down at the corners of Lance’s mouth. He’s right. It’s not exactly like Lance has been going out of his way to find the perfect, completely compatible match for Shiro. He’s been aware of that this whole time. Pretty much anyone will do. And it’s true that this isn’t the time to be a perfectionist about Shiro’s future relationship. When you have a month to make someone fall in love, you can’t be too picky.
But...maybe Lance has only known Shiro for two days, but he does know this: Shiro deserves to stay on Earth, and Shiro deserves to be loved by somebody who he loves back. Shiro deserves a long, happy life here with a partner who he can connect with, feel comfortable with, and enjoy spending time with. Someone who will cherish him and treasure him, who will be excited to wake up and see that handsome face next to them every morning. And, most importantly, someone who Shiro will feel the same way about in return. The passionate, confident, persistent man of his dreams, or whatever it was he said to Lance yesterday.
Lance is sure that he can find Shiro someone . Lots of people in this world are lonely and would be happy to love a man like Shiro. And Lance isn’t exactly an expert in demon bets or pacts, so he doesn’t really know exactly what would happen if the person who fell in love with Shiro fell out of love with him down the line, but he doesn’t want to assume that Shiro would be sent back to Hell. Maybe then, sometime in the future, Shiro would be allowed to pursue someone more his type.
But it would be nice, Lance thinks. It would be nice if they could get it right the first time. If Shiro didn’t have to saddle himself with a partner who was willing and nice and good but maybe not one hundred percent perfect for him. If, rather than forcing himself to be willing to love anyone, Shiro could naturally find the love of his life and get the opportunity to stay on Earth at their side.
Somehow, Lance isn’t totally convinced that that person is on his list here. But, well, there’s not much more they can really do right now except for try. And try quickly, because the longer they sit here on this bench, the more time ticks away.
“Well,” Lance says, and pushes himself to his feet. “We’ll just see what happens. For now, let’s head back in. I’ve got some homework to do, and we can pick out your next victim.”
“Victim?” laughs Shiro, indignant but teasing, and stands beside Lance, playfully nudging him with his arm on the way up.
Lance lets himself be pushed and stumbles a few steps, laughing too. He’s still smiling as Shiro looks around and takes another deep lungful of the fresh air around them, and then they head back off to the apartment complex together, grinning and joking as they go.
The house is spotless by this point. Lance couldn’t find a dust bunny or a speck of dirt if he tried. He knows, because he let his curiosity get the better of him and peeked under the couch, behind the toilet bowl, and in the bottom of the garbage can that he never washes out.
And yet, somehow, Shiro is still finding things to clean.
Lance has been trying to concentrate on his homework for a while, but the sound of Shiro’s rag wiping against the surface of the refrigerator— squeak, squeak, squeak —has made that a rather futile effort. He’s asked him to stop once already, and tried to set him up with his Netflix account in front of the TV another time, but it seems as though nothing can part Shiro from his actual one true love: cleaning.
“Alright,” Lance says, pushing himself up from his chair. “How about we make dinner or something?”
Once again, Lance can’t help but compare Shiro to an excited puppy. The kind who knows the word “dinner” and immediately perks up at it. This is the one thing he’ll drop the rag for, it turns out. Shiro had told Lance earlier that Earth food was one of the things he missed most while in Hell. Lance hadn’t gotten a ton of chances to ask about what life is like down there, but he has learned that they have a lot of home-cooked meals that look delectable and smell mouth-watering but turn to ash the moment they pass your lips.
Which sounds like a huge bummer, obviously. Lance would miss Earth food too.
“Let’s see if I’ve got anything in the pantry,” he says, knowing full well that any vegetables he may have once put into his refrigerator are probably wilted, if not beginning to smell. He’ll have to go grocery shopping at some point, but he’s reluctant to do it with Shiro in tow. There are some things his wallet will never be able to recover from.
He pokes around in his cabinets for a few minutes and emerges triumphant with a pair of boxes of Kraft mac and cheese. He’s wagering that his milk isn’t ( too ) expired, and sets a pot on the stove to boil.
He’s just turned around to explain the miracle of modern powdered cheese to Shiro when he notices the expression on his face. True to his theme, he suddenly looks like a dog who’s caught a scent. His curious expression includes his face tilted upwards, as though he’s heard or (less likely, though Lance finds the mental image amusing) smelled something.
“You good?” he asks, listening out too. But he doesn’t hear anything except for the hiss of the flame on the stove.
It takes a beat for Shiro to respond, and his slow, “Yes,” is less than reassuring.
“I just thought,” he goes on to say hesitantly, “maybe I sensed something.”
“Sensed something?” Lance echoes. “Like...?”
Shiro frowns. “Like some hellish, demonic energy.”
That makes Lance frown too. He’s never heard those words preclude anything good.
“Is that going to be a problem?” he asks. One demon is more than enough for Lance to handle, thanks. He doesn’t know what else could possibly make Shiro feel some “hellish, demonic energy” but whatever it is likely will only add to Lance’s problems.
“I don’t know,” Shiro replies, too honest for Lance’s liking.
“Hm,” Lance says. “Okay, well, whatever it is, it’s going to wait for after dinner.”
Shiro seems to agree because he doesn’t say anything else on the subject, but his attentive, inquisitive expression remains. Lance tries to distract him by rattling the pasta around in the box, and it works alright as Shiro leans in to examine the dried, mass-produced noodles. The water comes to a boil and things return to normal as Lance pours the boxes, one after another, into the pot.
The last little dried elbow slips into the pot. Lance places the empty box down on the counter. He turns to tell Shiro it’ll only be another few minutes.
A breaking, splintering, crashing thunders through Lance’s apartment, loud and violent and sudden, like something has just slammed through his walls right into his living room. Lance jumps, yelps, and spins around towards the source of the noise in alarm.
What he notices first is the dog.
Not a dog. A wolf. An enormous, black, slobbering creature, fur wiry and dark. It stands to at least the height of Lance’s waist and crouches near the entrance to his apartment, panting and showing off a frightening series of glistening, razor-sharp teeth. Its eyes blaze with a flickering red fire behind them, intelligent and vicious, as they sweep the room.
What he notices next is the demon.
A pair of black, curved horns sprout from between strands of shaggy dark hair. Long legs clad in soot-stained and burnt, loose pants are joined by a thin, spaded tail. He stands confident and broody-looking, his black sclera eyes glaring out from under a deeply creased brow.
What he notices last is that his front door has been broken in, the wood shattered around the hinges and the doorknob, still swinging from the scant persistent splinters that are the only thing still holding it together, leaving the interior of his apartment vulnerable to the hall beyond.
“What the hell?” Lance screeches.
But the newcomer couldn’t care less about him or his poor, unsuspecting door. Instead, his eyes lock onto Shiro, his face immediately softens, and he takes a half-step forward.
Deeply bewildered and more than a little bit peeved, Lance looks from the new demon to Shiro. Shiro, who, with an expression of wonderment on his face, slowly pushes himself up from where he was sitting. They make eye contact, and it’s like nothing else exists in the room around them, their gazes locked and laser-focused on each other.
“Keith,” Shiro says, and his voice is slow, reverent. “You found me.”
look forward to moth's chapter next in two weeks!!!