There was a lot to get used to when it came to living on the back of a giant magical space whale. Time distortions and unexpected flashbacks and flashforwards were some of them, of course, but they weren’t the only ones.
The relative isolation was one thing. Keith was here only with his mother, and they were restarting their family relationship in a rocky way, still having to feel out footholds and become comfortable in each other’s presence, which left a lot of silences in their wake. Keith had experienced loneliness before, but that didn’t mean the adjustment was ever easy, especially when life kept pushing him from isolation into groups and then back again, forcing him to adapt each time. He wished the universe would just pick one or the other for him and be done with it.
So many elements of lifestyle had to change too. As they had wound up in this place with nothing but the clothes on their backs and the knife at Keith’s side, whatever knowledge Keith and Krolia had about survivalism was being put to the ultimate test. Everything from shelter to food to water to warmth had to be scrounged up by themselves, and after all the time spent at the Castle and then at the Blade of Marmora base, with a bed to lie on and readily available food and all the amenities he could need, the adjustment was frustrating, if not downright painful.
Hell, even back in his desert shack he’d at least had a couch to sleep on, canned food to eat, and a semi-functioning air conditioner unit. Pidge had once shuddered when he’d described his life in the desert to her, commenting that it sounded almost like camping. If she could only see him now, she’d realize that that had been nothing.
He’d had to start getting used to hunting and gathering for food, relying on Krolia’s knowledge to let him know which fruits he could find were poisonous. He’d never gathered plants to eat before, although this wasn’t his first time hunting; he’d had a few jackrabbits and lizards during his desert days. When he let the fact slip to Lance once, the latter had looked like he was going to throw up and proceeded to call Keith ‘Lizard-Eater’ for the next week, before deciding it was too much of a mouthful and going back to the tried-and-true ‘Mullet.’
It was on one of their hunting outings that he’d first met the wolf.
He and Krolia had been following a series of tracks they’d found that led them to what they’d hoped would be their meals for the next few days, and managed to stumbled upon a whole group of colossal creatures that looked like some atrocity of nature birthed from a rock golem and a scorpion.
And the creatures looked to have been doing some hunting of their own, since they had surrounded a much smaller creature in a clearing. This one was furry, canine in structure, almost like a wolf pup were it not for the shades of blue that made up its fur and the strips of teal across its eyes and ears and paws that seemed to almost glow.
The pup was cowering away from the scorpion-like beasts, ears flat and teeth bared in a growl, when Keith and Krolia struck.
The creatures weren’t easy to fight off, as their tough exterior was a challenge to pierce, but they managed, bringing the beasts down one by one, putting their Blade training to good and practical use.
Keith had just finished bringing one of the last creatures down when out of the corner of his eye he saw a tuft of powder-blue fur slipping away into the bushes. A glance around told him that all but one of the creatures had been taken care of, and Krolia had the final one under control.
So, almost without thinking, he followed the tail.
The pup had shoved the plant life ungracefully aside as it had moved through them, leaving broken branches in its wake, so it was easy to follow its trail and find out where the little wolf had gone, and it wasn’t long before Keith came across it, sitting in another small clearing with its head ducked to like at its fur.
Keith approached the pup carefully, and it paid him no mind, instead putting all of its focus into licking its hind leg. A closer look showed a patch of crimson in its navy blue fur. “Are you hurt, little guy?” Keith asked.
The pup’s head shot up and it turned to Keith, its ears raised and pointed toward him, on the alert. It growled softly as Keith neared it, and although he knew it was meant as intimidation, with the pup’s size Keith was having trouble finding the action anything but cute. “Hey, it’s okay. I just wanna help, all right?”
Its ears flattened defensively as Keith got closer, and it pressed itself toward the ground, ducking away from him. With a sigh, Keith stopped his approach. The last thing he wanted to do was scare the pup. So, instead, he lowered himself down to the ground and sat, cross-legged, and held his hands up, palms out. “Okay, okay,” he said, “I’ll stay over here. Just making sure you’re all right.”
The wolf stared for several ticks more, then relaxed its posture, ears moving back to neutral, and, although it kept its eyes on Keith, it returned to licking the wound on its leg. Keith waited for nearly a minute more before he started forward again, slowly enough to be silent, not so slowly that the pup let its gaze leave Keith, but this time, it stayed more or less relaxed, and continued licking its leg right up until Keith stretched his hand out close enough that, when it leaned toward him, the wolf could touch its nose to the tip of his middle finger.
“There you go,” Keith whispered as it sniffed at his fingertips. “See? I’m friendly.”
The pup seemed inclined to agree, since it stopped sniffing and instead cautiously poked its tongue out to lick Keith’s finger.
Keith couldn’t stop himself from grinning. He held the hand that the pup was licking steady as he brought his other hand up, slowly reaching around to make an attempt at petting the wolf, but the pup froze, tongue still on Keith’s finger halfway through a lick, when a noise sounded from behind Keith.
Keith whipped his head around to look for the source of the noise, and spotted Krolia working her way through the foliage, hauling something heavy behind her. He relaxed, letting his shoulders drop. “It’s okay,” he said softly to the wolf. “It’s just Kro– um, my mother. She’s friendly too.”
The wolf’s ears twitched, and, as it gave Keith one last glance, a quick burst of white light suddenly engulfed the space where it stood. The light went out just as suddenly as it had appeared, and the space the pup had just occupied was left empty, save for a few motes of white light that floated down to the ground like sparks.
Keith gaped at the spot, jaw dropped. Had the wolf just… vanished? Just, teleported? Had he just discovered a magic wolf?
Well, it wouldn’t be the strangest thing Keith had seen since coming out to space. Not even close.
He glanced down at his hand, at the fingertip that was still just a little damp from where the wolf had licked it. He wondered idly whether the pup’s drool had any magical properties too, but, figuring it’d be awfully tough to figure out how to test that, dismissed the thought.
“Keith,” came his mother’s voice, and he looked up to see his mother half-carrying, half-dragging the carcass of one of those pincer-wielding, rock-like creatures behind her. “You going to help?”
“Yeah,” Keith answered. He wiped his hand against his Blade uniform to dry it and took up the end of the creature that was dragging along the ground.
“What were you up to?” Krolia asked as Keith hauled the carcass into his arms. “I had to finish off that last one on my own.”
“Sorry,” Keith grunted. “The wolf-y thing ran off, I was just trying to make sure it was okay.”
“One of its legs seemed kinda hurt, but it didn’t seem to be bothering it much. It disappeared before I could get a good look.” He adjusted his grip on the carcass before adding, “By the way, when I say it disappeared, I mean that literally. It just sorta, poof, teleported away.”
“Yeah. That the abyss’s doing?”
“I’d assume so.”
“You haven’t seen any other wolves around, have you?” Keith asked. “Or tracks?”
Krolia shook her head. “No, none. Why?”
“Well, it’s just – ” Keith turned to frown at the space where the pup had just been. “I don’t know much about wolves or anything, but I’m pretty sure, at least on Earth, they travel in packs? Like, there’s always a group of them?”
“Maybe that’s where it vanished off to,” Krolia suggested. “It went to rejoin its group.”
“Yeah, but why did it wander away from the pack in the first place?”
“I don’t know. Keith, this thing is getting heavy. Could we start heading back?”
“Right, right, sorry,” Keith said, hastily tightening his grip on the carcass so he and Krolia could lift it between them and start moving sideways through the underbrush. “I just, I dunno, wanna make sure it’s okay, is all.”
“I’m sure it’s fine. It was able to leave that clearing earlier, so its leg can’t be hurt that badly. It’s probably back with its pack even now.”
“Yeah…” Keith said. The word came out tentative and uncertain, but right now, the two of them needed to put their concentration and energy into hauling the carcass back to their campsite, so he let the matter drop.
He had half forgotten about the pup by the time they returned to the campsite and finished up the painstaking job of cleaning and cooking their kill, so it came as a surprise when he heard a rustling nearby.
Hand flying instinctively toward the blade sheathed at his hip, he looked up and across the clearing surrounding the cave and into the bushes, to see a dark pair of eyes staring back at him, the fluffy body of the wolf pup attached to it and visible through the sparse branches.
“What is – ?” Keith cut her off by holding a finger to his lips, then gesturing with a nod of the head toward the campsite’s edge. Krolia tilted around for a better view, then, having spotted what had caught Keith’s attention, turned back to him. “That’s the wolf you saw earlier?” she asked, voice lowered now.
Keith nodded. “I’m… surprised it found us,” he whispered back.
“You think it followed the smell? Maybe it’s hungry?”
Keith glanced from the meat on the spit over to the fire, to where the rest of the beast’s remains were propped up for later. “Or it wants vengeance,” he said with a little shrug. “It’s probably earned it.”
“Hey there,” Keith said quietly. “You came back?”
The pup didn’t so much as move, just kept staring at the scrap of meat in Keith’s hand. Keith held his hand out. “You want this?” he asked. The pup remained silent, and after several seconds of staring each other down, Keith started to tentatively walk forward. He had taken no more than three steps when the wolf pup vanished, sending those little spark-like motes of light floating down from where it had stood.
Keith blinked and straightened up, turning in place to try to see what had happened to the pup, eventually spotting it on the other side of the clearing, ducked low in another patch of bushes. Keith held his hands up. “Okay. Okay, you still don’t want me coming up to you, that’s fine. Well, I’m just gonna leave this here…” Slowly he leaned down and placed the meat on the ground. The pup watched him warily, and its tail flicked when the meat met the ground.
“If you want it, it’s all yours,” Keith said. He kept his eyes on the wolf pup’s wary ones as he unhurriedly walked backwards into his and his mother’s lean-to, then waited. Krolia stayed silent with him, watching as she chewed quietly on her own food. The pup kept its eyes on the meat and held still for nearly a minute before it vanished again. This time, though, it reappeared in the clearing. It reached down, scooped the scrap of meat up into its mouth, and, with one last look toward Keith, disappeared in another shower of sparks.
“Went back to its pack, huh?” Keith asked, raising his brows toward Krolia.
His mother just shrugged.
When the pup showed up again the following day, Keith was less surprised. It wasn’t exactly that he had been expecting it to return - more that he just… wanted it to.
It was a little silly, if he were being honest, and made him feel like a little kid again, the one who had obsessed over that stray cat that had picked through the trash cans in one of his foster families’ driveways, that Keith had set scraps out for and spent hours glancing out the window every minute to make sure that it arrived and got the food.
His foster mother had not been happy about him ‘wasting’ food, and he’d been sorely punished for it, but it had been worth it in his mind, and if she hadn’t threatened to set a trap for the cat, he would have gladly continued setting the food out for it, consequences be damned.
This time around, he didn’t have to worry about anything of the sort, since his actual mother held no bitterness toward the wolf that appeared in their campsite again - popping into view at the edge of the cave, closer than before and peering inside almost expectantly - just curiosity.
“It’s back again?” Krolia asked, brows shooting upward in surprise.
“Apparently,” Keith said. Without much thought he pulled a slab of meat away from the fire. They had plenty to spare after all, and the pup’s tail began moving back and forth as Keith approached it. He kept his steps slow, and this time, the wolf didn’t back away or vanish as Keith drew near, close enough for him to get a good look at the wolf and the way its leg had efficiently scabbed over since Keith had first seen it. It just kept its eyes firmly on the meat in Keith’s hand as he held it out. “You know,” he said quietly, “If you keep this up, you’re going to end up eating more of this thing than we are.”
The wolf, it seemed, interpreted that as an invitation to do just that, and it leaned forward to tug at the tender meat with its teeth, ripping part of the slab away and chewing noisily at it before swallowing and leaning in again for more.
A grin tugged at the corners of Keith’s mouth and he turned his head back to Krolia. “Are you seeing this?” he whispered. “It’s eating right out of my hand! Like… like it’s my pet or… or something.”
“I see it,” Krolia replied.
Keith turned his attention back to the wolf as it finished the meat. It sniffed at Keith’s hands, still coated in the meat’s fragrance, and poked its tongue out to lick his palm, keeping it up until it had lapped up all the flavor left.
Once it had moved from licking back to sniffing, Keith decided to chance it and moved his hand slowly toward the pup’s neck. Its ears lowered, but it didn’t flinch away, and when Keith managed to lay his hand on the back of its neck and start scratching his fingers into the fur, the ears gradually returned to their resting position.
“There, see?” Keith said. “I’m harmless, I swear.” The pup just lifted its neck and let its eyes drift shut.
Keith kept it up until he’d been petting the wolf for so long that his hand felt like it was beginning to cramp. When he stopped, the pup opened its eyes back up, wagged its tail, and vanished in a puff of sparks.
“Still doing that, hm?” Krolia asked as Keith straightened up from the ground.
“Yeah,” Keith answered. “But, know what? I’m pretty sure it’ll be back.”
“You’re kind of bad at being a wolf, you know that?” Keith said to the wolf once. He had lost track of the number of times the pup had shown up to his and his mother’s campsite, and he wasn’t sure if that was because it just showed up so often, or because time felt odd in the abyss, making everything hard to keep track of. Maybe it was both.
“I mean it,” he continued as he hacked a hunk of meat off of the new creature that was spinning on a spit over their campfire. “Most wolves hunt for their own food, you know? There’s gotta be something like, uh, the thrill of the hunt or whatever that’s supposed to keep you going.”
The wolf wagged its tail and leapt to catch the slab when Keith tossed it. “But you’d rather just be lazy and have me and Kro- Mom wait on you hand and foot, huh?”
The pup set the meat down onto the ground between its front paws, ripping a bite of it off and chewing noisily, sending slobber all over before going for another bite. It seemed that every time the wolf came by to visit, its table manners got steadily worse. Which made sense, Keith supposed; people were the same way.
Once the meat was gone, the pup marched forward, aiming for the spit of meat, and Keith had to physically block its path. “Oh no you don’t,” he said, throwing his arm out. The wolf simply wagged its tail and started moving around him. With a sigh, Keith reached out and grabbed it around its belly, lifting it away. The pup kicked its legs halfheartedly until Keith set it back down at the edge of the campsite.
“You’re a little guy, aren’t you?” he observed as he set it down. “Is that why you don’t seem to be doing any hunting? Gotta let the bigger members of the pack do that job?” The pup sniffed the air and then lifted its front paw to lick at it, probably aiming for anything left in the fur from the meat it had gotten earlier.
Keith frowned and lowered himself to squat next to the wolf, who didn’t so much as look up, by this point having grown accustomed to Keith’s observations of it. “How come I never see any other members of your pack, huh? None of your family’s gotten curious about where you’re getting all the delicious food?”
The wolf yawned and stood up, turning around to sniff at the ground, whipping Keith’s face with its absurdly fluffy tail in the process. Keith batted it away and asked, “You smell something good?” The wolf wagged its tail once and resumed its sniffing of the ground. After a minute it started pawing at a thick stick. “You want this?” Keith asked, stretching out an arm to take the stick. The pup didn’t give an indication either way whether that was what it had wanted, but Keith went with it. “Okay, you wanna fetch it? Want me to throw it for you?” It wagged its tail. “All right, then, here. Fetch!”
He tossed the stick and the wolf stood still as they both watched it fly past the treeline, then the pup turned to Keith with a narrow-eyed look that seemed to say, What the hell did you do that for?
“Okay, sorry, you didn’t want to play fetch,” Keith said with a shrug. He lowered himself back to the ground and sat cross-legged in the dirt. “My bad.”
Apparently the pup forgave him, since it trotted up to him, lay down beside him, and rested its chin against his leg. Keith grinned. This wolf already knew the drill, knew how easy it was to get scratches from Keith whenever it wanted them. And Keith was more than happy to spoil it, so he reached up and started scratching it behind the ears.
“So, here’s a question,” he mumbled. “I never see any other wolves around, I never see any sign that you’re with your pack. Do you even… have a pack?”
The wolf grunted and let its eyes fall closed.
“Well, that’s okay. Neither do I.”
He kept up the behind-the-ear scratches until the pup fell asleep, and stayed still afterward, putting a finger to his lips and pointing toward its sleeping figure when Krolia returned to the campsite with her haul from fishing. It slept on for another varga, long enough that Keith’s muscles got so stiff from inaction he wasn’t entirely sure he’d be able to properly stand up again after this, before its eyes fluttered open. It glanced up at Keith, thumped its tail once, and vanished.
The pup must have enjoyed its nap that day, because soon, using the campsite as a place to sleep became as much a part of the wolf’s routine as using it as a source of food. Keith obliged it, always petting it until it fell asleep and staying still for it afterward. And once it occurred to him just how soft the wolf’s fur was, and how warm it was, and how soothing and relaxing the rhythm of its breathing was, it wasn’t long before Keith started falling asleep right alongside it.
It would always disappear just after it woke, and seemed to be a lighter sleeper than Keith - which was saying a lot - so Keith would usually wake up to find the wolf already gone. He paid it no mind; it always came back. And it even started to work with Keith’s own sleep schedule, showing up ready to snooze around sunset on nearly a nightly basis.
The wolf was a comforting presence. He hadn’t realized how much he had missed having something soft to cuddle with at night, something he hadn’t had since a couple of foster brothers had ripped his stuffed hippopotamus to shreds in retaliation for some perceived slight that Keith had long forgotten. He’d never gotten any sort of replacement - the parents at that house had told him he was too old to be sleeping with stuffed animals anyway - and had instead, after an initial few tearful nights, simply tried to suck it up and deal with a loss, but now he began to wonder how many insomnia-plagued nights could have been relieved if he’d just had an animal - stuffed or otherwise - with him.
He and Krolia had fallen into the habit of talking around the campfire at night before bed. Neither of them were big talkers, and there was an awkwardness between them, one that came with two people who, despite blood, were essentially strangers suddenly thrown together by circumstance, and from their own respective social inhibitions, but it was something. A way for them to ask questions and get answers and slowly try to fill in the eighteen-year gap between them.
And having the wolf around was helpful for that. It gave him something else to look at, something cozy to focus on, to help him relax, and words came easier to him that way. It was becoming very clear to Keith why dogs were used in therapy back on Earth.
“You know, I’ve always wanted a dog?” Keith said one night as he ran his hand through the fur at the back of the wolf’s neck. The pup let out a sigh and stretched its front paws out before collapsing back against the ground, looking completely and utterly relaxed.
“Oh?” Krolia asked.
“Yeah. Most of the foster homes – I told you about the foster homes – ” Krolia nodded, her lips pressed into a thin line; she had been decidedly less than thrilled to learn how Keith’s upbringing had ended up being handled, especially when Keith had admitted a few of the darker details from the unfriendlier homes he’d wound up in, and Keith was pretty sure it would take some time before he could mention it around Krolia without her flinching at thought. “ – most of them didn’t have pets. I think some just didn’t want to complicate things if they ended up with a kid who was allergic. A couple of the houses I stayed at early on had dogs, but, they were always already so attached to their actual family, it was hard to share.”
He sighed as he moved his hand to scratch under the pup’s ear. “And around when I was, I dunno, around ten? They, uh… they didn’t – they decided they didn’t want to put me in any houses that had pets. I had started, um, started getting into fights at school and stuff, and I guess – I guess they thought that if I was aggressive toward people, then – then I would – they thought I’d…” He took a slow, shaky breath, inhale, exhale. “I think they were worried I’d try to hurt a pet if I was in a house with one. I – I wouldn’t have,” he added, looking up toward Krolia with an imploring expression, as if worried she wouldn’t believe him.
Krolia nodded. “I know you wouldn’t have, Keith.”
“I wouldn’t have,” Keith repeated quietly. “They’re – it’s not like I even wanted to get into fights or anything with people, it’s just… if – if they start hitting first, or if they start saying things like – like – ” He trailed off with another sigh. “Well, point is, dogs don’t do that.” Slowly he brought his hand away from the pup, frowning when he saw the slight shaking in his fingers. The pup glanced up when Keith stopped petting it, but then, after yawning widely and smacking its tongue a couple of times, it set its head back onto the ground and closed its eyes again.
“So, this wolf here,” Krolia said slowly, “It’s like the dogs on Earth?”
“I think so,” Keith said. He went back to his petting, deciding it was best right now to keep doing something with his hand, just keep it occupied. “It’s certainly as friendly as one.”
“You want to keep it?”
Keith raised his brow. “It’s a wild animal. I don’t think I could if I wanted to.”
“Well, I’m just thinking, it seems to be getting fond of you,” Krolia said, nodding toward the wolf’s sleeping figure. “And if it decides to stick around, then, at that point it’ll be more pet than wild animal.”
Keith bit his lip and looked at the wolf’s sleeping face, watching the way its nostrils widened and narrowed as it breathed, in time with the rise and fall of its belly. “I guess… if it decides to stay,” he answered. “Then I won’t argue with it.”
He lowered himself down, crossing his arms on the ground and resting his chin on them inches away from the wolf’s nose. “How would you like that?” he asked it softly. “How would you feel about being a pet?”
The wolf opened one eye, thumped its tail once, and went back to sleep.
It was gone by morning, but that didn’t stop it from showing up again the next night, curling up beside Keith near the fire as they both fell asleep, vanishing at some point during the night to go do whatever it was that cosmic wolf pups did when they were on their own.
The day that Keith first started thinking of the wolf as his wolf was the first day that he woke up to find it still curled up by his side.
Their normal meat supply was running low again, and it had been his turn to do some small-game hunting while his mother was in charge of water and firewood. They had managed to set up traps around the area not long ago, so his job mostly consisted of checking those, maybe searching beyond the perimeter for some other animal if none had wandered close enough to get ensnared.
He was on the lookout for small animals, though. Not the massive hulk of a beast he saw through the trees as he was on his way to check the last trap.
The moment he saw the creature he froze in place. Animals this size didn’t tend to come this close to his and Krolia’s campsite, probably warded off by the constant fire burning, so he had no idea what this one was doing so nearby. It was massive, probably nearing double size of any one of those scorpion-like beasts he had fought so long before, and its figure was bulky and bear-like, but with a solid and smooth coating more like an elephant’s than a bear’s. Definitely didn’t seem like it was worth the risk to try to hunt.
It was turned away, so it probably hadn’t spotted him. Slowly, he began to back away, ready to turn tail once he was certain he was out of the creature’s line of sight, but he didn’t see the stick on the ground behind him, the one that snapped in two with a crack like gunfire when he set his foot down on it, making him grimace.
The creature tensed and turned its head with whiplash speed toward Keith, its eyes locking onto him. It had a nose like a bear, but the skull was oddly triangular, like a snake’s head, and the eyes were orange and slit-pupiled and much too large for its face.
The eyes narrowed at Keith, and the creature let out a ferocious growl.
Keith ran for it.
He darted through the trees, hearing the creature lumbering behind him. He just had to shake it, get it off his trail. The beast hadn’t noticed him until he’d made a noise, so he shouldn’t have to worry about a keen sense of smell tracking him; otherwise it would have spotted him approaching. As long as he got out of its line of sight and stayed silent when he did, he should be in the clear.
So he did his best to throw it off, zigzagging through the trees and making sudden and sharp turns every half minute. The creature wasn’t particularly fast, but it made up the difference with size, and Keith was grateful now for his Galra-caliber stamina.
It was on his third sharp turn, though, that he slipped up. He hadn’t seen they way the ground was getting uneven beneath him, the sudden drop several into a ditch below that may at one point have been a small creek. It was all he could do not to yell out when he turned on his heel and his weight gave out beneath him, all of it on the side of his foot as his leg twisted and slid along the ground, sending him tumbling.
Keith landed hard on his side, and for a few seconds he remained still, dazedly blinking the stars out of his eyes and vaguely noticing the thrumming pain in his leg. Then he shook himself out of it, reminding himself that resting right now was not a good idea.
He shifted his weight and started shuffling onto his back and elbows, holding his breath to stop himself from letting out a pained groan as his leg started to bend beneath him, the sound of the approaching creature growing louder as branches snapped underfoot. Come on, he thought to himself, come on, get up, get out of the way before –
A snarl sounded overhead, and with a gulp, Keith tilted his head back to see that the creature had, apparently, found him. For a moment, they stared each other down, Keith wide-eyed, taking silent, panting breaths, the creature with its eyes narrowed, sharp and yellowed teeth bared and salivating. Then, with a loud growl, the creature leapt toward him.
Keith whipped his blade out from where it was sheathed at his side and threw his arms up, half to guard himself, half in an attempt to get a decent stab in. The creature was straddling him, its claws digging into the ground on either side of his shoulders, and Keith lunged out with his arm, plunging his knife wherever he could reach, which ended up being the creature’s shoulder. The blade sank an inch into the creature’s flesh before it reared up onto its hind legs with an agonized yowl, then landed again, snarling twice as hard as before.
Keith made another stab toward it, but the creature was ready this time, and it caught Keith’s arm in its jaws. It crushed the arm between its teeth, and Keith let out a strangled scream as the bones crunched under it and crimson began trickling out from between the teeth, dripping down onto him. The creature gave the arm a yank, wrenching it out of its socket and leaving Keith feeling nauseous from the sudden and excruciating pain. He tried to breathe, tried to keep himself focused despite being pretty certain he was about to lose an arm.
Then, it was letting go. Its maw opened again as it howled, and blood spurt from the holes left in his arm from the creature’s teeth as it released the limb. Another bolt of pain shot through Keith as his arm dropped to the ground, but he squinted through it, trying to see what had distracted the creature.
The fluffy blue tail arcing across his line of vision answered that question.
The wolf was on the creature’s back, its teeth sunk into the back of its neck all the way down to the gums. The creature shrieked again, bucking and jerking to the side in an attempt to throw the wolf off, but he held fast, growling as he bounced against its back.
A sudden flood of a deep green liquid poured forth, showering Keith – blood, he realized foggily; the wolf had just torn a chunk right out of the creature’s neck – until he was shielded from the onslaught, the wolf having jumped away to stand protectively between Keith and the creature. He flicked his tail, growling again. Despite the gaping wound in its neck, the creature still had the wherewithal to make one more lunge for the two of them, sweeping a clawed paw up and ready to bring it crashing down onto the wolf.
Keith squeezed his eyes shut.
But rather than the slash from the claws that he had expected, he was met with a surreal sensation. He felt suddenly like he was being pulled from his own body, like he was weightless, and a rush of wind and light enveloped him not unlike what happened whenever this abyss would suddenly pull him into one of his and Krolia’s memories.
When sensation returned to normal, he pried one eye open, then the other, to see that they were in a different part of the woods, quiet and green and no giant monster creature in sight, and he was lying prone on the forest floor, panting and shaking a little with adrenaline.
The wolf had magicked them away, he realized. And it was now standing over him, staring down at him with its head canted to side, as if watching to see if Keith was okay.
“Do you mean to tell me,” he panted at it, “That all this time, you could teleport other people with you… and yet I still had to haul supplies all over this stupid space whale all this time like a pack mule?”
The wolf wagged its tail and let out a bark that sounded almost smug to Keith’s ears.
It seemed that the wolf was selective about when and when not to help Keith out through its teleportation ability, and its selection process was a mystery to Keith, as it chose not to teleport them back to the campsite. It wasn’t a long walk, fortunately, but it was still a painful trek with his injuries. He managed to find a stick on the ground big enough to use as a walking stick, and as long as he gripped it in his left hand and kept his weight off of his injured left leg, he was able to hobble his way back, carefully sinking down against the cave wall when he made it back.
The wolf followed along beside him, and Keith was torn between being upset with it for not teleporting them to the campsite, and being grateful to it for rescuing him from that beast. He settled on the latter when the wolf curled up in the cave beside him and gently started licking his wounded arm; he just couldn’t stay mad at this creature.
He had managed to partially forget the pain in his arm and leg by the time Krolia returned to the campsite, but the gasp she let out and the loud thump of her dropping a bundle of wood to the ground was able to jolt Keith back into the present.
Krolia was kneeling beside him immediately, hands hovering over his bloodied arm. “Keith!” she cried. “What the ruggle happened to you?”
“Got hurt,” Keith grunted.
“The, ah, the hunter became the hunted.” At Krolia’s confused stare, he added, “Uh, sorry, Earth thing. Got attacked by some creature that tried to use my arm as a chewtoy. It, um, it’s not great.”
“I can see that myself,” Krolia sighed. “Oh, Keith.” She took the limb gently in her hands, but let it go when Keith let out a sharp gasp of pain. “Sorry,” she said, releasing her touch immediately.
“S’alright, just - careful.”
“I know. Well, it’s definitely broken. And plenty of broken skin… have you cleaned the wounds yet?”
“The wolf’s been licking them,” Keith replied.
Krolia frowned. “Keith, that doesn’t - ”
“We could re-wash them, if you want, but, apparently dog saliva actually can clean wounds effectively, so I figure the same goes for wolves.”
“Hm. I don’t suppose this saliva has any sort of enhanced healing powers?” Krolia asked.
“Huh?” said Keith.
“Well, I just thought, it’s a creature from the magic quantum abyss, and it’s able to teleport at will, so perhaps…”
Keith looked closely at the arm that the pup had been licking, but it still looked no less mangled than it had before. “I don’t think so,” he answered, shaking his head. “Thanks for trying though, bud,” he added to the wolf, who wagged its tail.
Krolia sighed. “All right, it was worth a shot. In any case, we’re going to need to reset the bone here. Would have been nice if we’d had a little magic to help out, but…”
“Great,” Keith grunted.
“I’m sorry, Keith,” Krolia said, and she certainly looked it as she frowned at him. “This is, ah, it will hurt.”
“I know. Just – ” He paused as the wolf suddenly teleported away, and mere seconds later, it had reappeared with a thick, smooth, two-foot long stick in its mouth.
Krolia tilted her head. “What is – ?”
Keith groaned, rolling his eyes. “I tried to teach him how to fetch the other day. It didn’t take, so I don’t know why – ” He winced as the wolf stepped up closer and shoved the stick right into his face. “No, not now,” he said, but the pup persisted until Keith sighed and grabbed the stick. Instead of readying for him to throw it, though, the wolf turned away, trotting around Keith to rejoin Krolia at his other side.
“… All right,” Krolia said slowly. “If, uh, if that’s done…”
“Yeah,” Keith said, gritting his teeth as his focus returned to the bone they were about to reset. “Yeah, just go ahead and – ” He paused and looked at the stick in his hand, then back to the wolf, who met his curious gaze with a knowing one of its own.
Damn if that pup wasn’t smart.
He brought the stick up to his mouth and bit down on the surprisingly soft wood, then nodded to Krolia to go ahead.
Krolia made quick work of it. Keith barely had time to squeeze his eyes shot before, with a crunch that sounded obscenely loud, fire was engulfing his arm, and a scream worked its way past the stick that he was biting down on like his life depended on it. His teeth sank into the wood, and he was sure that his tongue would have been a bloodied mess if he hadn’t had the stick.
The wolf must have sensed his distress, since it let out a low whimper and moved to shove its nose into Keith’s neck. Keith shakily reached his good arm up to pat its fur reassuringly and, once the fire started to die down in his arm, he slowly removed the stick from his mouth, peeked his eye open, and breathily asked, “Are - are you done?”
“Done setting the bone, yeah,” Krolia said with a nod. “I’ll have to get it into a sling, so it’s still going to have to deal with a bit of jostling, but that’s the worst of it over.”
“Wonderful,” Keith groaned. “And the leg, it’s hurt too,” he added, gesturing toward the injured limb. “Think I twisted it or something while I was trying to get away.”
Krolia moved to check on it, eliciting a hiss from Keith when she prodded it. “It’s not broken, but it looks to be sprained,” she said. “We’ll have to splint it still, but no bone-resetting.”
“It still won’t be fun, but - ”
“Hey, as long as it gets the job done.”
Krolia nodded and a small smile crept onto her face. “So, what do you think, nurse?” she asked, turning to the pup still hovering at Keith’s side. “He gonna make it?”
The wolf licked Keith’s face in answer.
By the time he was properly bandaged and tended to, complete with makeshift sling and splint and his arm practically mummified, the sun had started to set and he and Krolia were both exhausted. Krolia insisted on taking on all the pre-sleeping duties, from checking the perimeter to setting the campfire, so that Keith could just focus on staying comfortable and getting straight to sleep.
He settled into position for the night, half-lying down, half-seated against the cave’s wall, his bad leg stretched out in front of him and his broken arm lying flat against his chest in its sling. Just as he began to let his eyes fluttered shut, the wolf joined him, curling up beside him against the wall. Keith let his good arm drape around the pup before falling asleep.
He cracked his eyes open with the sun the next morning, and noticed immediately that something was different, something besides the muscle exhaustion and the ache in his arm and the awkward positioning of his splinted leg.
He had been growing gradually accustomed to falling asleep with his arm around the wolf pup where it would settle in next to him in the dirt, but so far, every time he had done so, he would wake up the next morning to a bit of a chill in the empty space where the wolf had been.
This morning, though, the arm that he would wrap around the pup hadn’t fallen to the bare ground during the next. Instead, it rested on a cushion of fur, moving rhythmically up and down in time with the wolf’s breaths, still curled around the animal.
“Hey,” Keith whispered, and the motion of the wolf’s belly stuttered as the pup woke up at his voice. “You decided to stay the whole night?”
The wolf tilted its head back far enough to lick Keith’s chin before resting it back on the ground.
Keith smiled. “All right. If you’re sure you want to make the commitment…” He closed his own eyes again too, and hugged the pup closer as he finished, “Guess you get to keep me.”
It wasn’t long before they had both drifted back off to sleep.