It was pure chance that Shiro came across the wolf. He had come to this forest in search of a kind of plant that was only found here. It was chance — or perhaps fate — that led him to the glade of yellow birch trees and fiery-red oaks, their colors bright and harsh and befitting of the grisly scene beneath. There was a wolf there, dark russet fur like fire and ink, struggling with his leg caught in a set of vicious steel jaws lying half-hidden in the fallen leaves. Shiro’s eyes widened at the sight of the wolf’s amethyst-colored eyes and the moon-shaped spot of white fur on his chest. This wasn’t just a wolf, he realized. It was a werewolf . And it was going to die, if Shiro didn’t do something. If not from blood loss, then most certainly at the hands of whatever hunter had laid these traps.
Shiro crept closer, keeping his body low and his hand out. “Hey, it’s alright, I’m here to help you…”
The wolf growled lowly, the fur on the back of his neck lifting as his hackles raised. Shiro slowed to a stop, not wanting to frighten him more.
“It’s okay, I’m not here to hurt you,” Shiro told the wolf. “I want to help you. I can free your leg, if you let me. Can I come closer?”
The wolf gave him a long, piercing look. Amethyst eyes flicked over his features and open posture, as if studying him for any hint of a threat. Paws shifted uneasily. The small movement tugged on his trapped hind leg, and the wolf flinched and let out a low whine, ears pinned back in pain.
Shiro’s heart ached to step in right away, but he held back and waited. The wolf panted heavily, eyes shut against the pain. When he opened them again, they fixed on Shiro and the wolf bobbed his head a little.
Shiro smiled, relieved. “Thank you. I promise to be gentle.” He inched closer, and the wolf stiffened but didn’t growl at him. It was a show of trust to allow him closer, just as it was a show of trust for Shiro to take his eyes off the wolf to examine the trap.
Shiro deplored hunters. Whoever had created such a horrific device such as this trap was a monster. Two large steel jaws filled with sharp, vicious steel teeth were snapped around the wolf’s hind leg, shredding flesh with every movement of struggle. A tightly-coiled spring ensured that the jaws would stay clamped tight around their prey’s limb. The steel was dark with rust and slick with blood. The wolf’s fur, too, was matted with blood. Shiro was horrified to see flashes of pink-stained white peeking through gaps in the dark fur; the trap (or perhaps the wolf’s attempts to escape it) had ripped through the flesh to the bone.
Shiro raised his eyes to meet those of the wolf, who was watching him guardedly.
“I won’t lie to you — this doesn’t look good,” Shiro said softly. “Even if I remove this, you will most certainly die of blood loss and infection if you run off. I can heal you, but it will take some time. Can you promise me you won’t run the moment I free you? I promise I will not harm you, nor hold you against your will.”
The wolf stared him down for a long time, visibly turning the words over in his head and weighing his options. Finally, he let out a resigned huff and bobbed his head.
Shiro smiled. “Thank you.” He turned back to the trap and examined it closely. There was no lever to release the jaws. He had heard of such traps, used by the cruelest kind of hunters who had no qualms about simply cutting the trapped creature’s limb clean off after they had killed it. Shiro’s blood boiled at the thought. He slowly reached out and let his hand hover over the cold steel of the trap, raising his eyes to the wolf’s again.
“I’m going to have to force this open,” he told them. “Even the slightest touch to the jaws is going to cause you pain, and I am sorry for that. Please, just know that I will try to do this with as little pain to you as possible.”
The wolf nodded slowly. His paws shifted against the fallen leaves, as if bracing for what would come.
Shiro turned back to the trap and carefully took hold of both steel jaws. In the corner of his vision, he saw the wolf flinch and heard the low whine of pain. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, even though they both knew it was necessary. He took a deep breath, then counted down. “Three… two… one!”
With all the strength in his body, he ripped the steel jaws apart. Even as strong as Shiro was, he could only force them a few scant inches apart. It was enough, though, and the wolf yanked his leg out of the jaws, letting out a pained yelp as the teeth dragged over the wounds. Once he was sure he was free, Shiro let go of the trap. The jaws snapped shut with an ear-splitting crack and the wolf let out a yip as he scrambled back.
Shiro held out his hands placatingly toward the wolf. “Shh, it’s okay, it’s okay…”
The wolf was lying on his side a few feet away, leg stretched out and slightly crooked. Shiro’s heart sank at the sight; the leg was probably broken.
The wolf’s ears pricked up and he straightened, attention suddenly fixed on something in the distance. Shiro heard it a moment later -- human voices and careless footsteps kicking through the underbrush. The hunters, coming to collect their prey.
He turned back to the wolf. “I can take you far away from here, where they can’t hurt you. But I’ll need to touch you to do so. Do you trust me?”
The wolf’s eyes flicked between Shiro and the direction the hunters were coming from. Finally, he nodded. Shiro reached out and laid his hands on the thick pelt of the wolf’s shoulder, whispering an incantation to himself and pouring every ounce of power he could spare into transporting the two of them. The runes and sigils tattooed on his arms began to glow as he drew on their power. He felt the wolf tense under him, a low warning growl rumbling in his chest, then the familiar tug behind his navel as the spell transported them across the forest.
With a soft whisper of wind rustling the fallen leaves on the ground, they vanished and reappeared outside Shiro’s cottage. The trees were different here; where the woods before had been filled with flame-colored deciduous red oaks and yellow birches, Shiro’s home was located further north, where evergreens and spacious hemlocks cast shade over the pine-littered soil. The air was cooler and clearer, and the bubbling of the nearby brook could be heard where there had been only silence in the other woods. The wolf jerked under his hand, startled at the sudden change in surroundings.
“It’s alright,” Shiro held up a hand. “You’ll be safe here. This is my home.”
The wolf looked around, lifting his nose to scent the unfamiliar air. He tried to get to his feet, but his wounded leg collapsed out from under him. He swayed on three feet, his back right leg lifted off the ground.
“Come inside, and I’ll heal you,” Shiro said. “Can you walk?”
The wolf twisted to look at his injured leg, then his ears flattened with a whine and he shook his head.
“Can I carry you?” Shiro asked.
The wolf gave him a mollified look. It was a startlingly human expression on such a canine face — a reminder of what kind of creature he was dealing with.
“Here,” Shiro crouched down and looked behind him, patting his shoulders. “Put your forelegs here. I’ll lift you. I’m stronger than I look, I promise.” He was aware that he looked strong, too. But this was a full-grown werewolf. Even a regular wolf would have been a challenge for a human to lift.
The wolf must have been thinking the same thing; he looked at him doubtfully for a moment, then his leg seemed to grow tired of being held up and dipped to rest on the ground, and he let out a whimper of pain. Looking reluctant, he hobbled a few steps closer to Shiro and did as he said.
Shiro grunted as he lifted the wolf on his back, hands behind him supporting the creature’s backside above his tail. He would like to say he stood tall and valiantly carried the werewolf into his home, but really it was more like he staggered, hunch-backed, with the huge wolf draped over him like a leaden blanket, and ungracefully kicked his own cottage door open. He wasted no time in depositing the wolf onto his bed, and tried to do so with as little pain to the creature as possible, but the wolf still let out a fair number of whimpers and grunts of discomfort at the movement.
“There,” Shiro huffed, panting to catch his breath. A few stray hairs had fallen out of the messy bun he had tied his long hair back in, and he tucked them behind his ear as he hurried to the shelves at the other end of the cottage. “Okay, okay, bandages, herbs, crystals, moonwater… what else, what else…” he moved around his cottage gathering books and ingredients while the wolf watched him, his eyes occasionally darting around to take in the cottage itself. It was a small place, tucked into the hillside to seek the earth’s warmth in the winters and coolness in the summers. Bottles of potions, herbs, and other ingredients lined the shelves and the small ledge of the windows. His wooden table was long, probably enough to serve six people comfortably, but he had only one stool and most of the table was taken up by scales, potted herbs that had already begun complaining to him about the chill in the autumn air and demanded he take them inside, potion-making supplies, and stacks of books that he had placed there when he ran out of room on his bookshelves. His bed was tucked in the corner and was really more a nest of blankets — some woven from wool, others from grass and tree bark pounded until it was soft enough to weave — and a few fur pelts tossed together on the sturdy wooden bed frame he had carved himself. The wolf nosed those furs curiously, and Shiro looked up at the startled intake of breath as the wolf scrambled back in fright.
“Ah,” Shiro instantly felt guilty. “Those pelts… I didn’t hunt them. All were gifts, from the animals themselves, mind you,” he added quickly, when the wolf narrowed his eyes at him in suspicion. Shiro tucked the mortar and pestle into the crook of his arm and went over to the bed, running a hand over each fur. “This was from a coyote who had been shot by hunters. I dealt with the hunters, but by the time I returned, it was too late to save the coyote. She insisted I take her pelt as thanks. And this was a deer I found with an injured leg, when he was only a fawn. I healed him and sent him on his way, and he returned to me at the end of his life. This was a fox who was too ill to raise her kits. I raised them in her stead. They still come back to visit in the spring, which was how I got these rabbits and these minks… sad to say they didn’t choose to give me their furs, but I would have been rude to turn away the young foxes’ gifts.” Shiro chuckled a little at the memory of opening his door and being startled to find a pile of small carcasses on his doorstep with adolescent foxes yipping in pride.
The wolf watched him guardedly as his fingers came to rest on a snow-white wolf pelt. Shiro’s smile slipped. “My mother,” he said softly. “Not my real mother, of course. I never knew her, or my father. They left me in a basket in the middle of the forest. This wolf,” he curled his fingers in the thick pelt, feeling the soft fur underneath the coarse guard hairs. “This wolf found me, weak and crying. She nursed me with her own cubs, and when I was strong enough, she brought me to the home of an old couple living near the edge of the forest. They raised me, and taught me to never fear the wilderness or the white wolf who would watch me from the treeline. When they passed away from old age, she returned and led me here, saying it would be a good place for me to live. I have to agree.” He smiled, looking around the cottage he had built for himself. “She came back to me a few years later, bones aching with age and blindness fogging her vision, and asked to be sent to the afterlife peacefully and without pain. After all she had done for me, I couldn’t help but oblige her, even though it was hard for me to watch her go.” He smiled sadly. “She wanted me to keep part of her so I would remember her. I would have never forgotten her, even without this.”
The werewolf watched him carefully while he spoke, sharp amethyst eyes studying him for any hint of a lie in his words.
Shiro chuckled in an attempt to lighten the mood again. “I’m sorry, I’m here rambling on about myself when you’re in pain. Here, let’s see that leg.”
The wolf laid down once more and gingerly extended his injured leg. It looked just as terrible as it had before in that yellow wood, and Shiro’s heart ached just as much at the sight. He carefully washed the wound with warm water, apologies falling from his lips between whispered incantations to help ease the pain. The werewolf let out little whimpers and hurt noises, but he managed to hold still during the process of cleaning and bandaging the wound. Shiro supposed that was one thing that was easier than working with a non-were animal; he always needed to use a number of calming spells and occasionally gentle binding spells to keep them from moving about in a way that would only hurt them more.
“There. Does that feel a little better?” Shiro bunched up a blanket and laid the splinted leg on it to elevate it a bit. The wolf twisted to look at his handiwork, letting out a huff before laying his head back down. Shiro stroked a hand over the fur of his side and the wolf’s eyes closed with a sigh.
“It will take a little while for the bone to heal,” Shiro explained. “Unfortunately, even I can’t heal breaks like that immediately, or even overnight. But I managed to cast some spells to quicken the process and minimize pain. It should be good as new in about a week. Can you stay here until then?”
The wolf nodded, rubbing his face against the blankets and pelts covering the bed.
Shiro smiled. “Good. I’ll make you something to eat. Just rest here.”
The sun was beginning to dip low in the sky and the shadows of the trees were lengthening by the time Shiro was finished preparing dinner. He didn’t often eat meat, given his close connection with the animals in his forest, but he knew the wolf would need all the energy he could get while he healed, so he caught several hares and whispered incantations of sleep and thanks for the energy their flesh would provide. He cooked the meat but left it rare enough to satisfy the wolf, and paired it with a hearty stew of potatoes, carrots, and kale to round out the nutrients. He added clippings of several of his herbs, and chuckled softly as the chives, garlic, rosemary, and targon plants pouted at not being selected for supper when he usually loved them. He gave them a little extra water and brushed his fingers over their leaves, silently explaining that they would be toxic to the currently-canine werewolf.
The whole time he was cooking, those piercing amethyst eyes remained fixed on him. The wolf lay with his head between his paws on the bed, watching Shiro as he moved around the cottage humming to himself. When he picked up the two wide, wooden bowls, the wolf’s head lifted and his ears pricked forward.
“Dinner’s ready,” Shiro told him with a smile. He set one of the plates — with the larger of the two servings — on the bed near the wolf’s paws. “It’s nothing fancy, but I hope you like it.”
The wolf, of course, said nothing, but a long pink tongue snaked out to lick its chops before beginning to eat ravenously.
Shiro nudged his stool closer to the bed and tucked into his own meal, but the wolf was licking his bowl clean before Shiro could even manage a few bites. “Guess you were hungry, huh?” he chuckled.
The wolf blinked slowly at him as he licked his chops again. Shiro left his food for a moment and filled another bowl with moonwater he had charged upon the last full moon a few days ago. He whispered an incantation over the water to aid the drinker in recovering their strength, then set it beside the wolf, who lapped it up gratefully. Shiro mused, as he sat back down to resume his own dinner, that had it been a real wolf, coyote, or fox, they might have snapped up his food while his back was turned. It was rather fortunate he had stumbled upon such a polite werewolf.
When the werewolf had drank his fill and Shiro had finished his own supper, he fetched water from the well to wash the dishes. Lifting the bucket, he tilted his face up towards the moon shining bright in the sky between the branches of the trees. Waning gibbous, with just a small sliver gone from the full moon a few nights before.
Shiro brought the water back to his cottage and set to washing the dishes. He could feel the wolf’s gaze on him as he worked, and sure enough, when he turned to fetch a cloth to dry them, the wolf was watching him with his head lying between his paws.
“The moon has begun to wane,” Shiro told him. “Will you need to shift?”
The wolf only let out a huff. Shiro was skilled at hearing the unspoken languages of many plants and animals, but were-creatures were always enigmatic, given how close they were to humans. He didn’t deem it polite to go poking about in their thoughts, either.
“One blink for yes, two for no?” He offered.
The wolf glanced at him, then blinked twice.
Shiro nodded and resumed putting the dishes away. “That might be for the best, actually. Your leg would need to be re-splinted if you changed your form. I’m not certain what effect shifting would have on a broken bone, but I can’t imagine it would be good.”
He was met with only silence, and Shiro glanced over his shoulder to find the wolf’s eyes closed, head resting on the blankets while he lay on his side. As if he could tell he was being watched, his ears swiveled toward him and amethyst eyes opened once more.
“Do you have a name?” Shiro asked.
“Can you tell me it?” Shiro wondered, even as he asked, how the wolf might even go about communicating his name.
The wolf looked down in thought, eyes narrowed and tail twitching, then rolled his shoulders in an imitation of a shrug and laid down once more with a sigh. It seemed he also didn’t know how he would tell him, or perhaps he had some reservations about telling him. A name could be a powerful thing, Shiro knew.
“That’s alright,” Shiro smiled. “It’s getting rather late. Do you need anything else, before going to sleep?”
A soft huff and a shake of the head was all the response he got. It seemed the ordeal of the day had tired the poor wolf to the point where he could hardly open his eyes.
Shiro realized too late that he had nowhere to sleep, but he knew his guest needed the comfort of the bed more than he did. He hunted around a chest of winter things (the wood spelled to keep out moths and the growth of mildew and musk) and found one warm woolen blanket. He wrapped it around himself, dusted off the stones beside the hearth, whispered a quick incantation to keep the fire going through the night, and settled down on the ground in front of the hearth.
☽ ✧ ☾
The wolf rested quietly for only a few days before he seemed to grow restless. Shiro didn’t blame him; he himself wouldn’t like to be confined to bed for days on end with nothing to do. After a few long days of pawing listlessly at the blankets and whining when Shiro left the cottage with a promise to be back soon, the wolf seemed to have finally had enough. When Shiro started to help him back up onto the bed after a bathroom trip outside, the wolf plopped his rump on the ground with a huff and refused to get up. The fact that his leg was splinted straight meant that the pose looked a little silly, one leg out from the rest, but the pointed look was enough to get his message across; he was bored of bed-rest.
Shiro lifted an eyebrow. “Alright, let’s have a look at your leg.”
The wolf huffed and laid down on his side on the floor, sticking his splinted hind leg out for him to inspect. Shiro crouched beside him and unwrapped the leg, running his fingers over the limb to feel the bones. The wounds had healed, helped along by the magic, and the bone was definitely on the mend but was still fragile. He told the wolf as much and received a head flopped to the ground and a grumbling cry that could only be described as ‘tantrum-like’.
Shiro pressed his lips together tightly to fight back a smile at the dramatic display. “You still need to rest a bit longer. But I suppose a bit of light walking around would do you good, so long as you keep your weight off of this leg. Think you can manage that?”
The wolf bobbed his head and sat up, tail thumping against the floor.
“One moment, I’ll re-wrap this.” Shiro murmured several healing incantations over the leg and bandages as he re-wrapped the limb. When he was finished, the wolf rolled up to his feet with a surprising amount of grace for having the better part of one limb immobilized. He took a few cautious steps, hobbling on three legs, and started exploring the cottage and curiously sniffing at anything he could reach. Shiro subtly moved the herbs that were toxic to canine creatures up to the top shelf after seeing that the wolf could easily reach the table with no trouble.
In the days following that, the wolf began to idly follow Shiro as he worked. He would often turn around from grinding up herbs or reading his spellcraft books only to find a set of amethyst eyes watching him inquisitively, head tilted in thought. Shiro found the wolf’s curiosity charming, and often explained aloud what he was doing. It was nice to have some company as he worked in the garden readying his plants for the coming winter, even if their conversations were largely one-sided.
As the weeks drew on, Shiro began to notice the wolf’s restlessness take on a new nature. Rather than an excess of energy, the wolf seemed to grow listless and worried. Shivers would wrack through him occasionally, yet Shiro detected no hint of a fever. It wasn’t until he was making his preparations for the new lunar phase that he realized what the trouble must be.
“The new moon is approaching,” he said to the wolf while he was inspecting his leg again. “Two days from now. You won’t be able to keep this form during that time, will you?”
The wolf hung his head with a quiet whimper.
Shiro ran his fingers over the bone thoughtfully. It wasn’t quite healed completely yet, but… “I believe your leg has healed enough to be able to shift without causing more damage. I wouldn’t recommend doing it many times, but you should be able to shift for the new moon.” He cleared away the splint and bandages after doing his usual healing spells on the leg, then went to the chest where he stored the few extra clothes he had. He had no way of knowing what the werewolf’s height would be once he shifted, but he pulled out a shirt and a pair of pants with a woven cloth belt and folded them up, placing them on the corner of the bed. “Here. You can wear these, whenever you decide to shift.”
The wolf huffed — really, Shiro would have called it a pout — and remained where he was laying, apparently with no desire to shift. He would have to, at some point, and that point was most likely two days from now, if not sooner. Shiro wasn’t sure how difficult it was for a werewolf to resist the call of the moon.
☽ ✧ ☾
A couple of nights later, Shiro got his answer. He had just come in from preparing the garden for the planting he would do in a few nights for the waxing crescent. Although the sky was clear, the night was dark without the glow of the moon; he had only starlight and his own lamp to guide him as he worked, but he could tend to the earth with only his sense of touch alone if he needed to.
Closing the door behind him, Shiro glanced in the direction of the bed, where he had left the wolf sleeping when he went out after dinner. He was only mildly surprised to see a person there now. He was clearly bare after his transformation, which had probably come over him in his sleep and he had not yet noticed. He was still nestled in a cocoon of blankets and furs, but Shiro could see a strikingly beautiful face, a head of long, dark hair, an exposed foot and leg still stained with healing bruises and new scars, the slope of a bare shoulder, the empty silver circle magically tattooed just below the dip of his collarbone that marked him as a werewolf, and… ah, the soft curve of a breast where one of the pelts had fallen too low.
Shiro turned away quickly to protect the sleeping person’s modesty. He set the lantern on the table as quietly as he could and cast a quick spell in the direction of the bed to lay the pelt over his body fully. The night air was chilly, and he wouldn’t want him to get cold.
Try as he might not to disturb the werewolf, it seemed the quiet sound and the magical movement of the blankets woke him from his light doze. A few moments later, Shiro heard the sound of shifting weight and rustling fabric come from behind him. He risked a glance over his shoulder and found his guest sitting up in his bed with the white wolf pelt wrapped around his shoulders, making him look almost like a selkie of canine origins. The same piercing amethyst eyes as he had as a wolf watched him from across the cottage, and Shiro noticed that despite the human appearance, he still retained that glint of eye-shine that revealed that this was a predator of the night.
Shiro smiled warmly. “Good evening. How are you feeling?”
The werewolf looked away. “Better. Thank you, for saving my life.” His voice was quiet, and low and rough like the growls Shiro had become familiar with.
“Are you hungry? Or thirsty?” Shiro asked. “I’ve heard that shifting takes a lot of energy.”
“A little,” he admitted, drawing the pelt tighter around his shoulders. “Some water would be good.”
Shiro dipped a cup into the bucket of fresh water he had drawn from the well that day, then handed it to the person. To his surprise, he let go of the pelt to reach for the cup, letting the covering fall open at the front and hang precariously from his shoulders.
Shiro didn’t mean to stare, but the sight was presented so suddenly and right in front of him, so he couldn’t help it. It wasn’t the nudity that really shocked him, though. Or, it had been, at first, but that was quickly overshadowed by the scars; the soft, smooth expanse of his ribcage and stomach were marred by four jagged scars cutting across his torso. The scar tissue was thick and rope-like, a sure sign that the cuts had been deep and had struggled to heal. From the arrangement and what little he knew of his guest, he could only assume that they had been inflicted by claws.
When the werewolf tipped his head back to drink the last of the water, the pelt perched on his shoulders fell and pooled behind him. He let out a shiver and his shoulders drew hunched. “...‘s cold without fur,” the person muttered.
Shiro tore his eyes away from the scars and picked up the folded clothes he had left beside the pillow. “Here. These might be a bit big on you, but the wool is warm.”
“Thank you.” The werewolf reached for the clothes.
Shiro busied himself with taking the cup back to the kitchen and refilling it, so as to give him some privacy. He didn’t seem to care about his nudity, other than feeling cold, but it still didn’t feel right to stare.
“Shiro?” The werewolf called. “My, um… my fingers are a bit stiff. Could you…?”
“Oh, sure,” Shiro set the cup on the table and came around to the bedside. The werewolf had managed to get his arms through the sleeves, but the shirt was open at the front and he was frowning down at his hands as he opened and closed them in slow, shaky movements, as if he wasn’t used to being able to move his fingers after spending so much time as a wolf.
Shiro sat on the edge of the bed and started doing up the buttons lining the front of the shirt. “How did you know my name?” He asked, curious. “I apologize; I don’t think I ever actually introduced myself.”
“It’s alright. People seldom say their own name in conversation,” the werewolf said. “And your plants told me. They talk about you.”
“Do they, now?” Shiro chuckled, glancing at the herbs sitting on his kitchen table. “Good things, I hope?”
The herbs were pointedly quiet, which was a rarity for some of them (especially the cilantro… the finicky little bastard never stopped complaining)
The werewolf just hummed noncommittally.
“May I have your name?” Shiro asked, moving up to the third button. “Now that you are able to speak, that is?”
The werewolf was quiet for a moment. “Keith,” he said finally. “My name is Keith.”
Shiro looked up with a warm smile. “Pleasure to meet you, Keith. I just wish we could have met under less dire circumstances.” He did up a few more buttons, trying very hard to focus on the fabric and buttons and not on the fact that his hands were very close to this person’s breasts.
“If it’s alright,” he started slowly, carefully. “Can I ask how you got these scars? It looks like a terribly painful injury.”
Keith’s expression clouded and he went stiff, but he didn’t push Shiro away. “I made a mistake. Mistakes were made.”
Shiro couldn’t help but notice such unusual phrasing. Perhaps it meant that part of it had been a mistake that someone else had made, that had affected Keith. But Shiro couldn’t imagine what kind of mistake would lead to such a graphic injury.
“Was it a fight?” Shiro should stop talking, he knew. He shouldn’t pry. But the question came out anyway.
Keith’s expression was dark as he lifted his hands to clumsily do up the last two buttons himself. “My pack and I didn’t exactly see eye-to-eye on some things. ‘Some things’ meaning who I am and how I see myself, regardless of what I was born as.” He scowled and looked away, hand curling into a fist on his knee. “My pack thought I had gone mad. The alpha did this,” he brought his hand up to his chest, fingers hooked like claws, and slashed it downward toward his hip, mimicking the scars. “And kicked me out. Said it would be better for everyone if I went off and died in the woods somewhere.”
“That’s terrible,” Shiro told him, horrified. “To do that to you and tell you that, and just cast you aside… I’m so sorry you had to go through that.”
Keith lifted a shoulder in a half-shrug, eyes fixed on his lap. “They were right. It’s what I deserve—”
“It is not.” Shiro cut him off. He took Keith’s hands in his, and was surprised by how hot the werewolf’s skin was. “No one deserves to be treated that way, Keith.”
Keith said nothing, but he also didn’t pull his hands away from Shiro.
Shiro squeezed his hands gently, hoping to convey his reassurance. But Keith didn’t seem to want to say anything more, so Shiro would not press him now. “May I see your leg? I would like to check the healing.”
Keith worked his leg out from under the blankets and pelts, wincing a little at the movement. Shiro fetched the jar of salve from where it was sitting ready on the table and settled on the edge of the bed to take a look at the limb. Keith’s legs were covered in dark hair, but it was still far easier to see the wounds now than when they had been hidden by a thick layer of fur. He could see that the bruises were healing, and the gashes left by the trap’s jaws were healed to pink, tender tissue. They would leave a scar, most likely, but at least there was no sign of infection thanks to Shiro’s efforts.
“This is looking much better,” he told Keith as he dipped his fingers into the jar of salve. “I would suggest staying off of it for a day or two more, but after that, you should be completely healed.” He spread the salve over the wounds, whispering healing spells as he worked. After that, he wrapped a few clean bandages around the wounds to keep the salve in place, but didn’t deem the splint necessary anymore.
“Why did you save me?” Keith asked. “You didn’t know me. You could have just left me.”
“I couldn’t have,” Shiro shook his head. “Everything with a life deserves a chance to live. Anything that can be saved deserves to be saved.”
Keith let out a derisive snort. “My pack wouldn’t have agreed with that,” he said quietly, with an ache in his voice.
Shiro’s hands stilled as he absorbed the words. “Then they would be wrong,” he said firmly, tying off the last bandage.
As he set to tidying up the medicines, Shiro glanced over his shoulder and found Keith looking out the window with his face turned up toward the new moon, visible only as a disk that was a slightly darker black than the star-speckled dark night sky. A frown pinched his lips and his brows were drawn low over his eyes.
“Do you prefer being a wolf?” Shiro asked, as careful as he was curious.
Keith’s lips tightened into a thin line. “Yeah,” he said, pushing away from the window and dropping onto the bed once more. He reached for the white wolf’s pelt and wrapped it around himself, as if to replace his own new-moon-human skin.
“May I ask why?” Shiro asked, sitting on the stool still positioned beside the bed.
Keith hesitated, visibly mulling over his reply, then settled for gesturing at his chest and making a face that was equal parts pain and disgust.
Shiro hummed thoughtfully. “I suppose that is one benefit,” he mused. He didn’t have any such worry or discomfort himself, instead being able to enjoy the luxury of not really caring about his gender either way (and living far enough from civilization that no one else cared, either).
Keith pulled the pelt tighter around himself, looking away briefly before his eyes settled on Shiro, hard and cold. “I’m a man,” he said, quiet but defiant. Defensive.
“I know,” Shiro said. At Keith’s questioning look, he lifted a hand and made a sort of loose, flowy gesture toward Keith, tracing around him. “Your aura,” he explained. “I can’t see auras, and they aren’t colors like many people believe. But I can sense it all the same. I felt it from the moment I met you. I could sense you were male, as clearly as I could sense you were in pain because of that trap.”
Some of the tension leaked out of Keith’s shoulders as he relaxed. Not fully, but a little. “You’d be the first, then,” he said ruefully.
“Hopefully not the last,” Shiro said. He dried his hands on a towel and looked toward the window; he could tell from the positions of the stars that it was late. “We should sleep. You’ll need your rest to recover the last of that leg, and I’m sure you’re tired after shifting. Do you need anything else?”
“No,” Keith shook his head, pulling his legs up onto the bed. “Thank you, Shiro. For everything.”
“It’s my pleasure,” Shiro smiled, picking up the blanket he had left folded on the corner of the table. He wrapped it around himself and took his place on the ground near the hearth. “Goodnight, Keith.”
For a long moment, there was only silence — the too-still kind indicative of deep thought rather than peace. Shiro cracked an eye open and saw two bright yellow spots of eye-shine peering at him out of the darkness.
“You… uh,” Keith cleared his throat. “The floor doesn’t look very comfortable.”
“It’s fine,” Shiro said. Not the best, but not the worst, with the help of a few spells to make the stones more comfortable.
“You could…” the glint of eye-shine disappeared for a moment as Keith looked away. “I mean, the bed is pretty big. Now that there’s not a giant wolf in it, that is. You could probably…” he trailed off, but Shiro felt he understood.
He sat up slowly. “Only if you’re comfortable with that,” he said carefully, not wanting to impose on his guest.
In the dim light of the glowing coals in the hearth, Shiro saw Keith bob his head in a nod. “I trusted you to free me from the trap and heal me. I can trust you with this, too. And… it’s cold without my fur.” He looked away as he said it, and Shiro wasn’t sure if the warm color on his cheeks was a blush or the glow of the fire.
Shiro smiled. “Alright.” He got to his feet, blanket still wrapped around himself, and crossed the room to the bed. Keith scooted closer to the edge, so Shiro took the side next to the wall. After arranging the blankets and furs so that both were comfortable, they laid down. “Goodnight, Keith,” Shiro said, closing his eyes.
“Night, Shiro,” Keith said quietly, rolled onto his side to face away from him.
☽ ✧ ☾
They had fallen asleep back to back in the bed with a bit of space between them, a blanket or two surreptitiously balled up between them like a flimsy barrier. When dawn broke, Shiro found he had rolled onto his back in his sleep, and Keith had burrowed through the barrier of blankets and fitted himself close to Shiro’s side. Even as a human, the nose pressed to Shiro’s shoulder was cold in the chilly morning air. Shiro looked down at Keith’s face, relaxed in a way he hadn’t been when he was awake, and remembered what Keith said about it being cold without his wolf’s fur. Surely that was the only reason he was pressed so close to Shiro, he thought; just seeking out warmth in his sleep.
He had a feeling that getting out of bed would wake his sleeping guest, so Shiro made himself content to simply lay in bed a while longer and enjoy the rays of sunlight warming his face through the window. Eventually, he felt Keith stir beside him and take a first deep breath upon waking, the warm air ghosting over Shiro’s collarbone.
“Morning,” he greeted him softly.
“Ah, sorry,” Keith apologized, voice still rough with sleep. He moved to put a more respectable amount of distance between them, head ducked low to avoid Shiro’s eyes.
“It’s alright.” Shiro didn’t mind, really. Those fox kits he had raised had spent every night in his bed with him, snuggled up to their pseudo-mother and trying to get into his shirt (they had not understood the concept of male vestigial nipples…). The night was cold, and it was nice to share body heat.
Shiro sat up and rolled out the muscles in his neck, spine popping. It had been quite a while since had indulged in a morning of sleeping in. “Did you sleep well?” He asked.
Keith nodded, but rather than looking relaxed, the lines of his face were drawn and tense. “The new moon makes me tired. Lethargic. I sleep longer, but in this form that’s dangerous. I don’t have my teeth and claws if someone tries to sneak up on me.”
Shiro considered his words. “You really don’t like this form, do you?” He asked.
Keith shook his head. “I hate it,” he whispered, softly but with a heavy emotion.
Shiro watched him carefully. ‘Hate’ was a strong word. Keith did not seem to be using it lightly. He cleared his throat and tried to change the subject. “Well, you will be safe here. No one will sneak up on you, regardless of your form. You can rest as much as you like.” He slid off the bed and shivered as his feet touched the cold floors not yet warmed by the sun; autumn was quickly fading to winter. Shiro pulled on his warm woolen socks and laced up his sturdy leather boots. “How about some breakfast? We can heat up the stew from last night, and have something hot to warm us up.”
“Yeah,” Keith said with a small smile. “That sounds good.”
The warm stew in their bellies for breakfast helped make the chill of the morning air easier to bear. After breakfast, Shiro drew up some water from the well and set to tending to his plants. Many were beginning to go dormant, and he was busy casting spells over their leaves, roots, and stems to help protect them during the long, cold winter. Some of the hardier vegetables were still thriving in the cool air, and he was in the midst of giving thanks to them before harvesting when Keith wandered outside. He had pulled on one of Shiro’s sweaters, but was still barefoot.
“What are you doing?” Keith asked, walking up to him.
“Bringing in the last of the harvest,” Shiro said, eyes dropping to his bare feet in the grass. “Aren’t you cold?”
Keith shrugged. “My feet are tough. Apparently calluses stay with you, whether you’re a wolf or a human.”
Fair enough. Shiro picked up his basket and got to his feet. “Did you need something?”
Keith’s eyes slid to the side and he shifted his weight. “Can I help? I mean, I have hands, so…” he trailed off, looking unusually shy.
Shiro smiled. “Sure. I was about to do the carrots. Here, I’ll show you how.” He dropped to a crouch, and Keith followed suit, watching in interest as Shiro showed him how to tell which vegetables were ripe and ready to be picked, and how to pick them.
It was nice to work together, and they managed to finish twice as fast. Shiro was reminded of the days when Keith, as a wolf, had followed him around and watched him work. It was nice to talk with Keith and have Keith be able to talk back for a change, but the easy air between them was the same as when he had been a wolf. Much like then, Keith watched Shiro curiously as he prepared some potions, but this time, he jumped to hand Shiro the bottles of ingredients before he could reach for them himself.
“I have hands,” Keith explained, when Shiro asked him about it. He passed Shiro a vial of dried sage with a wry smile that didn’t quite touch his eyes. “This form might as well be useful for something, while I’m in it.”
That was… a rather grim way of looking at one’s own body, Shiro thought. But he knew Keith took issue with it, so he didn’t bring it up to the other.
They prepared dinner together, then ate. Keith helped him wash the dishes afterward, but he seemed distracted, always glancing toward the window. As the sky deepened to indigo, Shiro saw it — the tiniest sliver of the moon, the very beginning of the waxing crescent.
“You can shift whenever you like, you know,” Shiro told him, drying his hands on the towel after finishing.
Keith turned away from the window, looking guilty. “I… yeah. I would feel better,” he admitted quietly. “Sorry.”
“No need to apologize. You’re free to do as you like,” Shiro reminded him.
Keith rubbed his arms, averting his gaze. “I kinda have to… you know,” he plucked at the collar of his borrowed shirt. “For shifting. I mean… unless you don’t mind this getting shredded.”
“Oh,” Shiro blinked, understanding. “No, I’d rather keep that intact, if you can. I’ve got some planting to do — the beginning of the waxing crescent is a good phase to plant under — so I’ll be outside. Take as much time as you need.”
“It’s pretty quick,” Keith said. “But, yeah. Thanks.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Shiro smiled and reached out to squeeze his hand comfortingly. “Before you lose the ability to speak, is there anything else you need? Or will need, after? I can make you some pain relievers, if it hurts.”
The worried lines of his face smoothed out into something just short of a smile as Keith shook his head, some of the tension leaving his shoulders. “I’ll be fine. It doesn’t hurt that much. It hurts more for turned werewolves, but I was born like this. I hardly feel it. But thank you.”
“Alright. Good luck, then.” Shiro gathered up his planting tools and a jar of moon water, then left the cottage and closed the door behind himself.
Everything was quiet as he made his way to the garden alongside the cottage. The cold had driven away the bugs and crickets that usually sang at night, and while he could sense the presence of a few animals prowling the forest, they were all small predator types and so they moved silently as they hunted. The cold sky was clear, only the tiniest sliver of moon visible among the bright stars. Shiro set down his lantern a safe distance from any of the leaves blowing in the breeze, and got to work. He had a few seeds to plant that would lay dormant until they were ready to grow in spring, and he murmured spells over them as he laid them in the ground. He kept an ear on the cottage, but it too was silent; no flashes of magical light, no cries of pain at bones rearranging themselves, not even a canine yip came from the cottage. Even so, by the time Shiro was brushing the dirt off his hands and sprinkling moon water over his newly-planted seeds, the cottage door creaked open and Shiro looked up to find a familiar dark russet wolf padding over to him, eyes reflecting the yellow light of his lantern.
Shiro smiled at him. “Feeling okay?”
A soft whuff and a head-bump were his answer, which he hoped amounted to a ‘yes’. Shiro stroked a hand down the wolf’s neck.
“Come on, let’s go back inside and get ready for bed.” Shiro picked up his tools and the lantern. A scrap of fabric fell out of his basket – the cloth he had wrapped around the seeds while he kept them warm inside. Keith darted forward to pick it up, gently closing his teeth around it and trotting back to the cottage with Shiro at his side.
“Even without hands, you still want to help me, huh?” Shiro chuckled. He held open the door for Keith to trot though, then closed it and did up the lock for the night. To his amusement, Keith dropped the cloth on the table (an easy feat for a wolf of his size), right where Shiro usually kept his planting tools.
“Thanks,” Shiro smiled, patting the soft fur between his ears.
While Shiro moved around the cottage putting out candles and muttering spells over the fire to keep the coals warm all night, Keith hopped up on the bed and circled, settling down in a large ball with his tail tucked around him. Shiro noticed that the shirt, sweater, and pants Keith had been wearing as a human were folded neatly on the corner of the bed beside the pillow. Shiro moved the stack of clothes to the bedside table, keeping them close in case Keith needed to shift again.
“Can I sleep here?” Shiro asked, patting the edge of the bed. Keith cracked one amethyst eye open and regarded him sleepily, then blinked once. With his other eye hidden under the fluff of his tail, it looked almost like a wink (Shiro had to remind himself that it was not).
He got settled in bed beside the huge wolf and noticed that Keith was curled up on top of the blankets. Granted, he probably didn’t need them as much with his own fur coat keeping him warm, but Shiro still grabbed a blanket and laid it over him before settling down to sleep.