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the light the moon sends back

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“Kiss the mouth which tells you, here, here is the world. This mouth. This laughter. These temple bones.”

—Galway Kinnell from "Little Sleep’s Head Sprouting Hair in the Moonlight”

 

This long, winding walk through the woods is supposed to be part of the healing process. 

He’s not sure what, exactly, staring at trees and trying not to trip over roots is going to do for him, but he’s not really in a position to argue. Sloane had taken one look at him this morning, tired and sad and trying to find something at the bottom of his coffee cup, and sent him on a long walk through her “backyard.” 

For the foreseeable future, Ryan is staying with his cousin in the upper peninsula of Michigan. After graduating college, he’d slowly but surely sunken into a bad state of depression and anxiety, and it finally got bad enough for his mom to suggest he go stay with Sloane for a while. She lives in St. Ignace, which is about as far away from Los Angeles as a person can get. Where L.A. is hot, sprawling, and comprised of hungry, starving people trying to claw their way to the top, St. Ignace is beautifully green and quiet and the only hungry, starving person is Ryan. 

As he carefully makes his way further into the woods, Ryan thinks about what he needs to heal from, and then thinks about the phone call that landed him here in Fuckall, Michigan. 

“My mom thinks I should come and stay with you for a little bit,” he’d told Sloane, voice hollowed out. “Get away from L.A. and all the people I know in it.” 

Sloane had paused short enough for it to be unnoticeable to anyone but Ryan, who felt her pause like a black hole opening up. She’d always been his favorite cousin, simply for the fact that she was fearless and spoke her mind with the kind of transparency he craved from everyone in his life. 

“Whatever you need, Ryan.” she’d said eventually. “You can stay with me as long as you like.” 

When he arrived in St. Ignace, after a long flight and then a shorter flight and an hour or so drive from the airport to Sloane’s house, she didn’t press him for details and he didn’t offer them. It took nearly a week of Ryan sleeping late and only talking when spoken to for Sloane to crack and ask what the fuck happened to him. He’d given her the bare bones-- “I don’t know what I want to do with my life anymore, all of my friends are moving forwards while I’m stuck in the same spot, Jake is doing so much better than I am and our parents love him for it and can’t stand being around me anymore.”-- and Sloane had just stared at him for a long, long moment. Ryan had stared back, and then admitted in a hoarse whisper that Eli had cheated on him, that Ryan had loved him since they were kids and Eli had loved him up until he didn’t, and Sloane held him when he finally broke down. 

And now Ryan is wandering through the trail behind her house, trying to find closure in the endless stretch of green, green, green. Sloane had taken one look at his slumped, aching figure this morning and told him that he was going for a walk to find peace or: “At least do something besides sit still, Christ dude, you haven’t sat still since you were a newborn.” 

It’s not what Ryan would call magical, but it’s not bad, either. He loved hiking up to the Hollywood sign back home, and doing crossfit with all of his college friends, so there’s a part of him that does find peace in the physical aspect of his walk. But his mind is still going a million miles an hour, thinking about how he should be back home and applying for jobs, trying to stay close to all of his friends, moving on from Eli, apologizing for alienating himself from his family. He’s had a story teller’s brain for years and years and he can’t help but think that when he needs it to be silent the most, it rises to an unbearable volume and doesn’t stop, no matter how hard he tries. 

Ryan walks for an ambiguous amount of time, breathing in the scent of wet dirt and clean air. He winds his way through the forest trail behind Sloane’s house and thinks about Steven unknowingly getting the position he also applied for, Ned and Ariel getting married in the summer, Jake getting one of his compositions put into a short film being featured in the Sundance Film Festival. He thinks about how he should be at the top of the world right now and instead he’s falling apart in the middle of northern Michigan.

The thoughts become too much and he has to stop and curl up against a tree for a while to cry. He lets the sound of the wind whirring through the trees and the trickle of a far-off creek wash over him and he cries until he can’t anymore. When he’s done, feeling both better and incredibly miserable, he breathes in and lets the unfamiliar scent of pine and soil bring him back down. The homesickness it brings cuts through the haze of pain and pushes him back to his feet. 

He stumbles through the back door an hour later, covered in dirt and drying tears, and Sloane hugs him tightly before offering to make them some lunch while Ryan showers. He thanks her and heads off to do just that; peeling off his dirt-caked clothes feels a little like climbing out of a cocoon. 

When he’s done showering, Ryan takes a moment to wipe the steam off of the mirror and look at himself. He looks exhausted and pale, but underneath all of the pain in his eyes and the corners of his mouth, Ryan can still see his old self. His old self is close enough to reach, and he thinks that maybe, if he keeps up with the walks and this ‘healing process’ Sloane keeps going on about, that maybe he can get his old self (and life) back. 

Sloane must see the same thing when he comes back into the kitchen for lunch. She smiles sweetly at him and silently accepts his help cutting up fruit. 

“Feel better?” 

He doesn’t know if she’s talking about his walk or his shower, but regardless, Ryan replies with a quiet but sincere: “Definitely,” and then they talk about Good Omens for the rest of their lunch together and not about the deep, purple circles under his eyes. 

~.~.~

To Ryan’s surprise, the walks become a staple in his routine. After crying it out during the first walk, he decides that, healing or not, going on a hike every day gives him something to look forward to and a way to keep a daily routine. He usually walks an hour into the trail and then hour back to Sloane’s house. While he’s walking, he thinks about L.A. or he thinks about as little as he possibly can, depending on his capacity to handle pain for the day. A few weeks in, he even starts to tentatively plan out a new storyline for a TV show he’d love to create, and spends some of each walk coming up with character names, backstory, plot--the works. 

Before he knows it, Ryan has been going on daily walks for over a month. The end of August slowly becomes September, and now September is the beginning of October. The leaves in the woods are all brilliant shades of red, orange, and yellow, and if Ryan takes his walk after his job at the library, the sun is bright and low enough to turn all of the leaves into gleaming jewels. It’s what time he goes tonight, after getting home around 4 P.M. and eating a pre-dinner snack. The sun is already starting to sink towards the horizon when he steps out onto the trail, and the leaves look like glistening rubies and topaz gemstones. He takes a deep breath, letting the scent of dirt and the bite of the cold erase any stress from the day, and then he walks. 

Ryan finds that hiking in the middle of autumn elicits a different emotional response. When he was hiking in August and September, it was a frenzied, desperate attempt to exhaust himself beyond the point of remembering home and the people in it. He walked as fast as the uneven terrain would let him, and he sweat out all the tears he wanted to cry. But now that he’s had time away from L.A. to calm down and the temperature has started to drop, walks through the woods have become a way for him to stay warm. They’ve become a steady, easy pace meant to slowly keep him warm while also releasing any lingering tension from the day he’s had. 

On this particular night, Ryan feels a little fragile and keeps most of his thoughts about home out of his mind. October always reminds him of being in the middle of the first semester of school, of getting ready for Halloween, of going on early morning donut runs, of convincing everyone to go out to pumpkin patches and cider mills on the weekends. October is the month that meant the most to him, and it hurts in a bone-deep kind of way, more so than the gaping wound-way he’s been hurting. He walks his well-known path and thinks about the leaves changing colors and which Halloween movie he should watch tonight with Sloane. Any thoughts of Keith convincing Ned to watch Texas Chainsaw Massacre with them or thoughts of Annie with brown sugar all over her nose and Andrew laughing at her or thoughts of a pair of beautiful green eyes and a smile he’s known since first grade are kept far, far away. 

When Ryan reaches the point he usually stops at, he decides to walk just a little bit farther and check out the river that crosses through his path. He doesn’t feel ready to talk to his cousin yet, or send his daily text to his mom about his day. The weightless feeling he has, being alone in the woods, is something he’s in need of more today. 

He doesn’t realize how late it is until he reaches the river, the sound of water running over the rocks lining the bottom of it pulling him out of his thoughts. He notices that the river has less shimmer than he’s used to, and when he glances up at the skyline, he then notices that the sun is also a lot lower than it should be. 

“Shit,” Ryan hisses, the first words he’s said out loud since leaving the library. His voice sounds croaky from disuse, a sensation he’s never experienced before these past few months. “Fuck, I need to get back.” 

He picks up his pace on the turn-around, trying to keep up with the receding daylight. The race against the setting sun makes Ryan think of August and September, when he was running from his own mind out on this trail. His heart rate picks up and he feels his anxiety starting to skyrocket. Christ, Bergara, you can’t do anything fucking right. 

It’s about halfway back to Sloane’s when he hears it: a twig snapping somewhere behind him. Ryan doesn’t slow his strides when he glances over his shoulder towards the sound, expecting to see a deer. There’s nothing behind him, though, when he looks, and while he knows that it’s probably just some animal meandering around , not knowing what it is makes his gut flip. He picks up the pace even more until he’s walking as fast as he can without running. 

He hears a few more noises around him as he walks, but dismisses it as paranoia. I just have to get to Sloane’s, Ryan thinks desperately. I’ll be safe when I get to her house. I need to calm down or I’ll screw it up even more-- 

A branch snaps right next to him, and Ryan trips over a tree root in his surprise. He falls heavily onto the trail and curses, stinging hands already scrambling to get him upright again. When he gets to his knees, his breathing uneven and his heart racing a million miles an hour, he starts to stand back up when he hears it: 

A low, raspy growl. 

Ryan literally feels his heart stop for a split second, and then he’s flipping over onto his ass to see what’s been following him. He prepares for the worst, knowing that if it’s a grizzly bear, he’ll have to drop and play dead, but if it’s a black bear, he’ll have to fight for his fucking life. 

Instead of it being a bear, or anything in that realm of possibilities, Ryan comes face to face with a monster. 

It growls again and moves closer, mouth stretched into a jagged grin. Ryan is helpless to do anything but stare, frozen to the forest floor. The creature looks sickly and hulking at the same time: long, pointed bones, thin, sallow skin, huge antlers protruding from each side of its head, a mouth full of gnashing teeth, and glowing, red eyes. 

“What the fuck.” Ryan whispers shrilly, fingers digging into the damp earth. 

The creature makes a sound that might be a laugh and comes out from its hiding spot. Its smile, somehow, becomes even more sinister, and it reaches long, needle-like fingers out towards Ryan’s head. 

“You seem to be lost,” it hisses, eyes gleaming.

Ryan’s brain is screaming at him to run as fast as he can, but his legs won’t listen. He’s powerless to do anything but sit and stare up at this creature, stunned by terror. 

The creature laughs again and steps closer, dark, bloody tongue running over its teeth. “It’s a little late for you to be out here, isn’t it?” 

When it leans down, close enough to touch, Ryan flinches away and whispers: “Please don’t--” 

“‘Please don’t,’ what?” the creature asks, grinning awfully. “You humans are always begging for a free pass, or a second chance, but you never learn from your mistakes, do you?” 

It curls a bony hand around Ryan’s neck without warning. Ryan’s body finally gets with the program and he jerks away, gasping and clawing at the dirt with his aching fingers. It tightens its grip until Ryan sees stars and a noise forces its way out of his mouth, one that sounds like a wounded animal crying for help. 

“Please--” Ryan chokes out again, because all he can think is: Please, I was just starting to want to live again. 

The creature leans in and presses its face close to Ryan’s, inhaling deeply. It groans in satisfaction, and Ryan thinks he’s going to pass out from fear and desperation before it gets a chance to eat him alive. 

“I can smell how afraid you are,” it whispers to him. “I can smell how badly you want to live.” 

Tears enter his eyes without warning. Ryan can barely see the gleaming leaves and this creature’s gleaming eyes through the hot sheet of them. He closes his eyes in an attempt to get some control back over himself, and the creature rumbles out another laugh. 

Hot, acrid breath hits his ear, and then the creature tells him: “You should have stayed away.” 

Ryan takes a deep, shaking breath, and opens his eyes again. The creature is close enough that he can see its bones shifting and bending underneath its thin, yellowed skin, but he makes himself look into its eyes. The creature grins with all of its bleeding, jagged teeth, and Ryan feels the tears in his eyes bubble over. 

“Please,” Ryan whispers, biting back a sob. “Please don’t kill me.” 

The growl that comes out of the creature is worse than all of the others. The growl is demonic and hungry like the first ones, but is also angrier, darker, closer to a roar than a rumble. Ryan forces himself to keep looking into its eyes, despite the tears that keep slipping out of his own. 

The creature stares at him for a long time, a sneer always present on its face and its eyes a bloodthirsty scarlet. Ryan can feel his heart racing enough to hurt, and there are bright lights sparking at the edge of his vision from panic and the pressure on his throat, but he doesn’t move, hardly dares to breathe. 

Just when Ryan thinks the creature is going to scream and rip his throat out, its face changes. Ryan sees it sink from menacing into something akin to anguish. The creature’s entire body seems to droop, lecherous grin falling into a broken frown, back hunching until it’s curled up into itself. The dangerous grip around his neck loosens until just the sharp tip of its fingernails are gently pressing into Ryan’s sweaty skin. 

For just a split second, Ryan looks at the monster and sees something he saw every single day in the mirror during August and September. 

And then it rocks away from him, back towards the trees. Ryan stares after it, head spinning and heart beating erratically. 

“Go,” the creature tells him, voice like shattered glass. “Get out of these woods and don’t ever come back.” 

Ryan doesn’t need to be told twice. His legs have him up and sprinting as soon as the words pass the creature’s lips. He runs as fast as he possibly can, sharp breaths keeping pace with each slap of his feet against the trail. He runs and runs and doesn’t look back until the fence to Sloane’s backyard comes into view, and then the back of her warm, pretty house. He flings himself over the fence and barrels towards the back door until he’s able to open it and throw himself inside. 

He collapses in a heap on the floor of the mudroom, hands shaking uncontrollably and head spinning. He doesn’t realize that he’s hyperventilating until Sloane is kneeling in front of him and whispering for him to focus on breathing in time with her. When he can breathe properly and the black spots in his vision finally disappear, he bursts into tears all over again. 

“Jesus, Ry,” Sloane whispers, wrapping her arms around him. “What happened? It’s almost 7, honey. I was getting worried about you.” 

Ryan can only shake his head and cry, clinging to Sloane like if he lets go, the monster will take her place. She doesn’t try to make him talk, just tells him he’s safe over and over again and gently cups a hand over the back of his head. Ryan tucks his face into her shoulder and sobs, trembling all over. 

When Ryan’s cried himself out, Sloane helps him to his room and picks out pajamas for him to change into. Exhausted, Ryan simply strips himself out of his hiking clothes and gets into the pajamas before climbing into bed, still sniffling and shaking. 

Sloane tucks the comforter around his shoulders, smoothing his hair down. 

“Get some rest, Ryan. I’ll be right here if you need me, okay?” 

Ryan tiredly nods. He worms a hand out of the blankets to hold onto hers. 

“Will you stay until I fall asleep?” 

“Of course,” Sloane promises, and Ryan drifts off to the feeling of Sloane combing one set of fingers through his hair and the other set gently soothing over his trembling hand. Just before he slips into unconsciousness, he feels her press a soft, soft kiss to his forehead, and Ryan thinks about his mom, and then he thinks about nothing. 

~.~.~  

Ryan sleeps through the night until the next morning, and when he wakes up, he thinks that it was all just a horrible dream. His joints ache, and his eyes hurt like he got something in them, but other than that, he feels normal. 

When he goes to the bathroom, stomach growling loudly, he’s caught between thinking about the vividness of the dream and about his shift at work. He feels like he slept forever and not at all, and wonders if he’ll be able to sneak a nap in during his lunch break to get rid of the grogginess. 

He’s washes up and looks at himself in the mirror to see how bad his undereye circles are from the restless night of sleep. Underneath the dark circles and the hard downturn of his mouth, Ryan sees a set of bruises curled around his neck in the shape of thin fingers. He doesn’t scream out loud, but it’s a near thing. He settles on reaching up to touch the bruises with shaking hands, and they’re tender, fresh. 

“It wasn’t a dream.” Ryan tells his reflection, and they both look absolutely horrified. 

Ryan stares at and touches the bruises for as long as he can stand it, and then he turns away, stomach churning despite being completely empty. 

“I’m still alive,” Ryan whispers to himself, swallowing hard. “It let me go. All I can do is move on.” 

He takes a moment to collect his thoughts, and then he leaves the bathroom to get dressed. He puts on jeans and a turtleneck sweater and does his best to think about work instead of the creature that almost killed him 12 hours ago but, for one reason or another, didn’t. 

~.~.~

Two weeks go by, and Ryan slowly begins to lose his mind. 

He keeps up a good act around Sloane and his coworkers. Ryan tells Sloane that while he was walking, he heard some branches break and thought it was a bear, but it turned out to be a deer. He explains his anxiety got the best of him and made him overreact, and she accepts the story without question, only telling Ryan to be careful and always remain aware of his surroundings. His coworkers don’t notice a change in his behavior at all, or if they do, they decidedly keep it to themselves. 

But, as hard as he tries, Ryan can’t stop thinking about the creature. He’s constantly thinking about its long, gnarled bones and its horrifying red eyes. He’s constantly thinking about the way it wrapped its hand around him and grumbled out: “You should have stayed away.” He’s constantly thinking about the way its face twisted evilly when it knew it had Ryan trapped, and then fell once it decided to let Ryan go. 

He absolutely cannot stop thinking about how close he came to dying, and then how he was suddenly allowed to live. 

It drives him up the wall for two weeks straight, and then on a morning off, Ryan gets up just as the sun is rising and goes into the woods. 

He doesn’t know if the creature will still be there, or if it comes out during the day, or if it’s actually even real. Ryan’s not convinced he didn’t just imagine the whole ordeal in some kind of mental breakdown that’s been waiting to happen since he came to Michigan. The only concrete evidence tying the creature to his memory is a set of finger-shaped bruises around his throat; fingers that couldn’t belong to a human being, but could belong to whatever attacked him. 

The woods are still in the early morning in a way that they aren’t when Ryan usually hikes. It’s a silence that’s not unlike the silence he experiences when he first wakes up in the morning, before taking his first breath and getting out of bed. It’s like the entire forest is holding its breath, waiting to wake up out of a deep, deep sleep. 

Every sound he hears makes Ryan flinch. Most of them are caused by his own two feet, but every time he hears a bird chirp, or a twig snap in the distance, his heart turns over. He pushes forward through the thudding of his heart and the sweat dripping down his back, knowing that if he doesn’t find out if it was real now that he’s going to go mad trying to find out for the rest of his life. 

He gets to his usual stopping point and keeps going, just like that night two weeks ago. He heads for the river, trembling hands stuffed into his jacket and his spine completely straight. When he gets to the river, where it separates his path from the one on the other side, he stops and takes a deep breath. And then he scans the trees across from him, keeping his ears open for any movement behind him. He feels like he might vomit, but also feels like he’s finally getting some peace of mind that he hasn’t had the past few weeks. 

Ryan stands there for a long time. The woods slowly begin to wake up around him: birds become louder, wind starts to stir the leaves on the trees, the sun rises enough to turn them into soft, glimmering diamonds. It feels like the deep breath is being released and the day is finally beginning. 

He hears the forest take its deep breath, and then he hears the rasp of someone running their hand over the side of a tree, nails dragging along the mossy bark. The sound digs into him like a knife, makes him flinch a little, but he doesn’t move away or show any other signs of distress.

“I thought I imagined it,” Ryan says eventually, still looking at the other side of the woods. “I had to know.” 

For a moment, there’s nothing but the wind in the trees. And then he hears the low growl that’s haunted his every passing thought for days. He both tenses up and droops when he hears it, the small confirmation that he didn’t imagine everything. 

The creature creeps closer, a rumbling noise following the growl. It sounds threatening, but also confused. 

“Know what?” it hisses, close enough that Ryan can feel when it speaks, and then he turns around. 

He turns around, looks up into those piercing eyes, and says: “I had to know why you didn’t kill me.”

In the daylight, the creature looks no less menacing. Its bones are still pointed and jagged, its eyes are still hauntingly blood-red, and its claws look sharp enough to rip his throat out without a second thought. But, in the daylight, Ryan sees something underneath the scowl and the dirty, snarled tips of its fingernails. 

He sees a fear that equally matches his own. 

“Would you have preferred it, after all?” the creature asks, looming over Ryan. “That I killed you?” 

“Would you?” Ryan asks in return, searching its face. In his head, he replays when it crumpled from evil to agonized. 

It doesn’t answer. Instead, the creature stares down at him with a similarly searching look, trying to find its own answers somewhere across Ryan’s face. Ryan flinches again when he feels the sharp point of a claw press into his cheek, but when he sees the creature’s face turn sad again, he realizes that it’s not meant to be harmful. 

“I told you not to come back.” it tells Ryan, instead of answering his question. 

Ryan looks in between its eyes, at the sorrow sitting in them instead of ravenous, blind hunger. There’s something to this creature that won’t let his brain quit, like a brilliant script idea he thought of at midnight, or the tale of some brutal, unsolved murder. It’s a desire to figure out all the turns and twists of a story, taking the knowledge that something is more than it first seems and using it to figure out what else is missing from the big picture. He knows that he’s not going to be able to stay away until he knows why the creature wants him to stay away. 

“I had a suspicion that you didn’t mean it.”

The creature lets out a garbled croak, and after a moment, Ryan recognizes it as a laugh. It steps away from him, careful not to cut Ryan on its long, pointed claw. 

“I meant those words more than you will ever know,” it says, voice almost a pleasant rumble. “These woods are full of dangerous creatures that humans would never even begin to imagine exist.” 

“Creatures like you?” 

It frowns. “Just because I didn’t kill you doesn’t mean that I haven’t killed before. I am very dangerous. You would be wise to heed my warning and stay away from here.” 

Ryan steps away from the edge of the river and goes to the creature, who doesn’t back away again. “So why didn’t you kill me?” 

The creature hesitates, jagged teeth catching on its cracked lips. But then it comes back with: “It doesn’t matter. You shouldn’t have come here in the first place, and especially now that I’ve decided to spare you. You need to leave and never come back before something else decides to take an interest in you.” 

It reaches out the same claw and runs it gently over Ryan’s cheek again, like it can’t help itself. “I can assure you that no other creature will be as generous as me.” 

Ryan tries a different tactic in an attempt to have his questions answered, to calm down his racing mind. 

“What kind of creature are you, then?” 

They look at each other for a few beats, and then the creature retracts its claws. When there’s a substantial amount of space in between them, the creature begins to blur around the edges, and then it begins to transform. The antlers on its head sink back in and become long, thin ears; its arms, legs, and torso shrink into something resembling a normal size, and its skin thickens over its bones; its teeth turn smoother, rounder, and its eyes go from ruby red to a deep, earthy amber; a white long-sleeved button-up shirt and black pants materialize over its naked body. 

When all is said and done, the creature turns into a still-tall but very all-around human man. 

Ryan’s breath stutters, and he asks again: “What are you?” 

The creature--the man--smiles grimmly and says: “I’m a monster that’s not to be trusted.” 

Even with the foreboding words and eerie intensity of the creature’s staring, Ryan can still hear and see all of its unspoken truths sitting right underneath the rumbling of its voice. There’s hunger, and there’s anger, and there’s a deep, dark look of viciousness, but there’s also caution, and terror, and, if Ryan were pressed to look closer, something that he would call longing. He’s suddenly reminded of Frankenstein: the man and the monster as one and the same. 

The longing is what pushes Ryan closer to the creature, makes him hold their eye contact. Makes him say, under the whistling of the wind and the thudding of his heart: “I have a hard time believing that. You spared my life once. I bet you’d do it again.” 

The creature watches as Ryan slowly, painstakingly creeps closer, eyes wild and bright even in their amber shade. It doesn’t move away from him, but it doesn’t relax, either, still bunched up like it could fight or flee at any given moment. 

When Ryan is in touching distance of it again, the creature releases a long, ragged breath through its nose and says, “Maybe so. But nothing else in this forest will spare you even once, let alone a second time. It would be in your best interest to leave now and never come back.” 

“I came out here to find something,” Ryan tells it, wanting to reach out and touch its arm, but not wanting to send it away. “I came out here to find my head, and instead I found a whole new world. How could I stay away when there’s so much more to find than I thought?” 

“There’s nothing out here to find,” the creature says, voice barely above a raw, cracked whisper. “There’s nothing out here but ghosts and rot.” 

Ryan’s breath catches in his throat, and the creature tells him: “There’s nothing you haven’t already found.” 

While he tries to think of something to say in return, and to ignore the throbbing sensation in his chest, the creature gives him one last burning look and a: “Go, and don’t you dare come back here.” before it turns and melts back into the trees like it was never there in the first place. Ryan stares at the place it disappeared for a long, long time, thinks about calling out again, but finds himself suddenly exhausted. 

Instead of chasing after the creature, the man, Frankenstein’s monster, Ryan pulls a hand down his tired, aching face and heads back towards Sloane’s house, feeling lost and found all at once and not in a way he ever expected. 

Later that night, when they’re working through a box of pizza and watching terrible reality TV, Sloane asks him: “Are you feeling okay, Ryan? You look a little worn out today.” 

The more than usual goes unsaid, but instead of feeling it like a thorn in his side, he feels it like a hand brushing through his hair, or running across the expanse of his back. 

“I’m a little tired, but I’m okay.” he says, smiling softly at her. “I, uh, met someone today who just seemed a lot like me, is all.” 

Sloane smiles softly. “That’s good. Maybe you can help each other out.”

Ryan is a million miles away when he responds with his own soft, “Maybe we can.” still thinking about the creature’s bloody, gnashing teeth and how it touched Ryan’s skin with something that could only be described as reverence. 

He doesn’t know if there’s a way for him to help whatever creature is stuck out in Sloane’s forest, but some voice within him is telling him to try. It sounds a lot like the voice that’s been asking for help since he sunk deep, deep down into this endless swirl of blackness and pain.

~.~.~  

Despite the creature’s wishes, Ryan doesn’t stay away. He keeps up his daily walks through the woods, and without fail, every time that Ryan reaches the river the creature will melt out of the trees and present itself. Sometimes, it’s in its horrifically bony form, but more often than not, it presents itself as the man from their second meeting. 

For a while, the creature will just step out from the trees and speak to Ryan about how dangerous the woods are, and Ryan tries to extract more information from it. Why it didn’t kill him, what kind of creature it is, what else resides in the forest besides it. Ryan gets mostly roundabout answers, or no answers at all, but the creature stays true to its word and doesn’t make another attempt to kill him. 

One day, while Ryan is sitting cross-legged on the ground across from this mysterious creature, it gives him an unreadable look and says: 

“You’re different from a lot of other humans.” 

Something about the line makes Ryan laugh. It sounds suspiciously like : “You’re not like other girls.” 

“How so?” he asks. 

The creature gives him a small, small smile, one that makes Ryan’s breath catch. “Not a lot of humans would come looking for something that tried to kill them.” 

Ryan’s laughter subsides and he gives the creature his own curious look. “Well, not a lot of monsters would let their victims go.” 

The small smile drops off of its face. “No, they wouldn’t.” 

“So why did you?” 

The creature stares at Ryan, as it’s prone to do when it doesn’t want to answer one of his questions. Ryan stares back into its beautiful amber eyes and tries to look as non-threatening as possible. 

“There’s something about you,” it finally says, so quietly that the wind almost carries the words away. “that I haven’t seen in a long, long time.” 

“What’s that?” 

The creature shakes its head, breaking their eye contact. “Underneath your glassy eyes and your fragile skin and bones, there’s a fire inside of you. It seemed like it would be a shame to put it out.” 

After that, it gives Ryan another microscopic smile and disappears back into the trees without looking back. Ryan sits on the ground for a long time afterwards, his mind spinning in a million directions at once. 

It takes him until Halloween has come and gone to get the answers he was looking for. The leaves are steadily falling off of the trees and dying, and the wind gets sharper and icier every day, and Ryan hasn’t thought about his old life nearly as much as he’s thought about the creature in Sloane’s forest these past few weeks. 

He’s started going in the mornings before work instead of after; daylight has become a fleeting memory, and now lasts only about 8 or 9 hours at the most. It’s one of these pale, icy mornings when Ryan meets the creature by the river and thinks to ask it: 

“Who is your image modelled after?” 

The creature blinks. “Do you mean my true form?” 

“No, I mean this image.” Ryan gestures at the elfish features and messy brown hair the creature possesses in its human shape. “Why do you choose to look like this?” 

“Oh,” the creature sighs, understanding. “You mean my glamour.” 

It pauses, and instead of deflecting, seems to roll words around in its head. Ryan lets it think, trailing his eyes over the sharp edge of its jaw and thin, pink lips. 

“This is what I used to look like, before I turned.” it admits sadly. “This was what I looked like when I was human.” 

Ryan breathes out slowly. “How long ago did you turn?” 

“Long before you were even the possibility of an idea. Maybe even your parents and their parents. I’ve been alive since the turn of the previous century.” 

It sighs again and settles onto the ground in front of the log Ryan is sitting on. Ryan looks down at it and fights the urge to place a comforting hand on its shoulder. 

“I was thirty when I was turned, back in 1904. I used to live in Chicago, Illinois--is that still a place?” 

“One of the most well-known in the country.” Ryan tells it, barely above a whisper. 

The creature smiles. “That sounds about right. Chicago was massive, and innovative in a way that was only rivalled by New York City. That exist, too?” 

“Most inhabited city in America.” 

“Thought so.” The creature glances out across the woods, and looks both fond and achingly lonely. “I came up here during Christmastime that year, with my family. We were visiting other family that we only got to see once every few years. All I really remember is that I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.” 

There’s a tremble in the corner of the creature’s mouth that tells Ryan it’s lying, but he doesn’t press. 

“What was your name?” he asks, instead of, “What the hell happened to you?” 

“Shane Alexander Madej,” the creature says, swallowing heavily. “One of many in a big, Polish family.” 

Ryan lets the creature--lets Shane have a moment to collect himself, not ignoring the tears that appear at the corner of his eyes but also not pressing him. When he thinks that Shane can handle it, he asks him: 

“And who are you now?” 

Shane looks away from the trees and his old life, and up at Ryan instead. 

“I’m nobody, now,” he says. “I’m just some hungry, mindless beast.” 

A tear slips out of the corner of his eye, and Ryan thoughtlessly reaches up to wipe it away. Shane’s skin is ice cold, but smooth, and he stares up at Ryan like he’s the impossible, unreal creature.

“What are you, then?” Ryan asks softly. “Because I don’t think mindless is a good way to describe yourself when you spared a life, even after a hundred years of confinement.” 

Shane gently pulls his face away from Ryan’s hand, seeming to come back to himself. 

“I’m a wendigo,” Shane admits, looking down at his feet. “That’s all I am.” 

It takes a long moment of silence and Ryan trying to find Shane’s eyes again, but Shane eventually tells him about being a wendigo. He tells Ryan about how the same family he came to visit all those years ago were the ones who told him about wendigos, told him about their origin and their need to trap humans into the same fate as them. He explains that he was foolish, coming into the woods after dark during the winter, but he wasn’t in the right state of mind when he did and it cost him everything. And now he’s cursed to be a wendigo for the rest of eternity. 

“I have to eat human flesh and blood to survive,” Shane tells him, stone cold serious. “If I don’t feed, I live on the brink of starvation, but never am able to fully die. I’m able to glamour myself into looking and sounding human in order to lure humans to me, trick them into trusting me. I fed on a human when I was first turned, crazed and ravenous, but when I came to, I promised to never eat a human being again. But something can only live on the brink of death so long before going mad.” 

It takes Ryan a moment to process this information; he thinks about how close he came to being one of Shane’s victims, about how unimaginable it would be to live always on the edge of being a crazed, bloodthirsty monster or a weak, starving creature, unable to die. He thinks about how much willpower it must have taken Shane to let him live. 

“Will you tell me, now that you’ve told me all of this?” Ryan asks, searching Shane’s face. “Why you didn’t kill me?” 

Shane takes a deep, shuddering breath, and finally tells him: “You remind me of myself before I died. Before I became this.” 

That rocks Ryan to his core. “You mean because I’m searching for something?” 

“No,” Shane says. “Because of the fire inside of you.” 

When Ryan says nothing else, too stunned to string words together, Shane finishes with: 

“Because you have so much to live for, even if the fear and pain I sense within you is telling you otherwise. If I had seen it within myself all those years ago, I would have never become a wendigo. I let you live so that you would have the chance to live I was never given.” 

When Ryan can speak past the lump in his throat, both from Shane’s words and the look on his face, he croaks out: 

“You really don’t want me in these woods, huh?” 

Shane stares at him, and then huffs out a laugh. “I’ve been trying to get you to understand that. There are other wendigos in these woods that wouldn’t hesitate to tear you apart. There are rogue wolves that would kill you without a second thought. There are even some rabid vampires that still wander around these parts and feed on anyone they come across. This is a dangerous place.” 

“Yeah, but I have you to protect me.” Ryan doesn’t know why he says the words, but they ring true, so he doesn’t take them back. “I’m safe with you here, looking out for me.” 

The humor drains out of Shane’s face. “You can’t rely on that. Compared to a lot of the creatures who live in this forest, I’m a fledgling. They’re all centuries older, and are much faster and stronger than I am. Just because I let you live doesn’t mean that I can keep you safe.” 

“You’ve kept me safe so far.” Ryan points out, and Shane doesn’t reply, eyes as big as the early morning sun. “I trust you to keep me safe out here. I’m going to be coming out here for a long, long time, probably. I have no doubt that you’ll be there for me when I need you to be.” 

“That’s a lot of faith you’re putting into something that would have eaten you if I was just a little more out of my mind with hunger. Trusting a wendigo to keep you alive is like trusting a demon to get you into Heaven.” 

“I’m not trusting a wendigo.” Ryan kneels in front of Shane, until they’re the same height. “I’m trusting Shane Alexander Madej from Chicago, Illinois.” 

“I haven’t been him for a long time.” Shane whispers, words cracking like ice shards. 

“You’ve been him since I met you.” Ryan whispers back. “Since you let me live.”  

Shane studies him, face flickering between amazement, distrust, and sorrow. Ryan knows that there’s decades worth of history he doesn’t know, both when Shane was human and after he became a wendigo, and decades worth of pain and suffering he can’t make go away. But just as Shane sees himself in Ryan, Ryan sees himself in Shane, and can’t rest knowing that Shane is alone out here. He’ll do what he can, and take it one step at a time. 

Eventually, Shane’s shoulders unbunch and he asks, voice still fragile, “Who are you?” 

“I’m Ryan Steven Bergara,” Ryan tells him, and holds out a hand. “One of many in a big, Mexican-Japanese-Filipino family.” 

When Shane folds a cold, bony hand around his own, and gives it a firm shake, Ryan smiles. Shane smiles back, his human teeth still pointy but almost endearingly so, and it feels like a promise. We look out for each other, now. 

“I want to help you, if I can.” 

Shane’s smile dims, but surprisingly doesn’t drop. “There is no way to help me. I can promise you that. No matter how long or hard you’re willing to try.” 

The finality in it makes his gut hurt, and pushes him to say: “I’m persistent, so that might be longer than you think.” 

“I know.” Shane laughs quietly, pained and amused all at once. “I’m well aware of your lack of self-preservation, Ryan Bergara.” 

~.~.~

They spend November talking about their lives. Shane starts meeting Ryan closer to the entrance of the trail once the snow begins to pile up and Sloane gets nervous about his walks. 

“I’m not saying you should stop hiking,” she says, one night over dinner. They’re eating a beautiful spread of homemade spring rolls and vegetable fried rice, and Sloane looks dignified even as she tears into her roll and her baby cousin in equal measurements. “I just think that you shouldn’t go in so far. Maybe stop at the halfway point and come back and repeat it a few times.” 

Ryan thinks of the river and Shane’s favorite tree to melt out of and frowns. “You really think I can’t make it to the river?”

“Ryan, I’m not saying you can’t make it, I’m saying you shouldn’t. You’ve never experienced the kind of snow we get in the UP. You could very easily die of hypothermia or slide down the side of a hill and impale yourself on a tree branch and I would never know. It’s dangerous, dummy.” 

He sighs. “Sorry. I’m just attached to my route, you know?” 

Sloane pokes his hand with one of her chopsticks. “I know, which is why I’m telling you to keep it, but shorten it. I really don’t feel like rounding up all of the burly white dudes I live nearby to rescue your idiot ass out of a ravine, okay? I already have to fuck with them enough as it is.” 

“Fine,” Ryan concedes, smiling. “I won’t make you talk to Jeff and Dale and I’ll be safe.” 

“See? Wasn’t that hard, Bergara.” Sloane pokes him again, and then steals a piece of shrimp that fell out of his spring roll. “I’m just trying to look out for you.” 

He tells Shane about the conversation the next morning, and Shane agrees with Sloane, so he starts meeting Ryan closer to the mouth of the path. They sit together behind some gargantuan oak tree for an hour or so and talk about their lives prior to residing in Michigan. 

“My brother’s name was Finn,” Shane reveals one morning. “He was two years older than me and we looked identical.” 

“There was more than one of you?” Ryan teases. “That couldn’t have been good.” 

Over their weeks of talking and learning about each other, Ryan finds out that Shane actually has a pretty good sense of humor for a cannibalistic monster from the 1800s. He’s confident with teasing Shane a little here and there, and it usually pays off. 

It pays off today when Shane laughs quietly and knocks their knees together. “Yeah, we were a force to be reckoned with, that’s for sure. We got up to all kinds of trouble. Accidentally letting out an entire pen of chickens one night, stealing beer out of our neighbors’ cellars, sneaking out after dark to go dancing in town.” 

“Wow,” Ryan grins. “You two sound absolutely awful.” 

Shane grins back. “We definitely were. That was before the Prohibition really started to take over, so alcohol was easier to come by. We were both tall, taller than a lot of other men, so the taverns never even thought to ask how old we were. We got into taverns easily and would drink with the best of them and dance with girls until we were exhausted. And then we’d get up at 6 A.M. and go to work and it would start all over again.” 

He falls silent, lost in his memories. His smile is one that Ryan knows well: fond, but melancholic. 

“I have a brother,” Ryan says softly, trying to pull Shane back in. Sometimes when he gets too far into his thoughts, his glamour will fizzle out and he’ll start to become sickeningly thin, or his antlers will start to protrude. “He’s younger than me, though. By three years.” 

Shane looks at him again, that small, sad smile in place. “What’s his name?” 

“Jake.” Ryan thinks about his brother, and all the miles in between them. “He’s my best friend. I haven’t seen him since I came out here in August.” 

“You’re from California, right?” 

“Yeah. We live in Los Angeles--it’s one of the biggest cities in the U.S. now, right up there with New York City and Chicago.” Thinking about Jake’s face makes his chest hurt, so he thinks about the room they shared before moving into a bigger house. “We’re a lot like you and Finn. Always up to something when we’re together. Coloring on the walls with permanent marker. Flooding our front yard to turn it into a waterpark with the other kids in our neighborhood. Sneaking out late to catch new movies with our cousins.” 

“You two sound absolutely awful,” Shane tells Ryan, but it sounds like he means quite the opposite. “Complete menaces.” 

Ryan laughs, and it comes out choked. He looks at Shane and is surprised to find them both on the brink of tears. 

“I miss him.” Ryan admits, something in his chest breaking off. “I miss him so fucking much.” 

“Why can’t you go back to him?” 

He hasn’t really told Shane why he’s in Michigan, but knows that Shane can tell it’s something bad from the emotions he used to emit when taking his daily hike. He doesn’t know if he can give it all away yet, or ever, but he tries like Shane has been trying. 

“I’ve lived in California my whole life. All of my memories are from there. With Jake, my family, my friends, my--” Ryan can’t bring himself to say my ex-boyfriend out loud, but Shane’s face tells him he doesn’t need to. “It all just kind of fell apart for me. Jake’s been doing really well lately. He’s at the top of his class in college and he’s already been offered a great internship position for this summer. He’s been dating his boyfriend for four years. My parents are so proud of him, and I am, too.”

Ryan looks at Shane, and says: “He’s on top of the world right now. I couldn’t stay and drag him to the bottom with me.” because if anyone will understand what he means, it’s going to be Shane. 

Shane’s mouth trembles for a moment, and then he clamps his lips together. Ryan doesn’t realize that he’s crying until Shane reaches out and soothes a thumb under his eyes, much like Ryan did to him back by the river. Ryan lets out a shuddering breath and reaches up to take Shane’s hand in his. 

“I’ve got a long way to go before I can be there for him.” Ryan admits. “I can’t be there for him until I’m there for myself first, you know?” 

“Of course,” Shane gives him another sad smile and squeezes Ryan’s hand. “I know what you mean.” 

Ryan sniffles and looks away from Shane’s beautifully earnest eyes. They don’t talk for the rest of their visit, and they don’t let go of each other until Ryan has to get ready for work. Shane walks him as close to the edge of the woods as he dares, and before Ryan can let go or say anything, Shane reaches up and gently runs his thumb under his eye again. Ryan stares at him, motionless, and then Shane pulls away and melts back into the forest like he was never there to begin with. 

For the first time since Shane revealed what he was, Ryan has to fight the urge to look up information about wendigos at work. He’s afraid of what he might find in the old history tomes on legendary monsters, and he’s more afraid of finding out if people who become monsters get to keep their soul or if it vanishes as soon as they’re turned. He’s afraid to find out if, despite the earnest expressions of grief and love Shane has shown him, that there’s no way that he can be saved. 

So, instead of torturing himself, Ryan silently puts books away or checks them in and thinks about the way Shane almost strangled him, about the way he dried the tears off of Ryan’s face with a touch so light he barely felt it. 

~.~.~

Ryan doesn’t realize how deeply his affection for Shane actually runs until Sloane suggests they go skiing for a weekend. It’s not like he can say, “I’m sorry, there’s a monster living in the woods behind your house and we’re friends now. I haven’t missed seeing him for almost two months and I don’t plan on breaking that streak any time soon.” Sloane would probably call his parents and freak the hell out, and it would end in all of their family from Michigan driving over to stage an intervention. So Ryan agrees, and Sloane tells him to go pack a bag because they’re heading out immediately.

He feels a little queasy all weekend, knowing that Shane won’t see him until Monday morning and is probably wondering where he is. He focuses on their trip for the most part, though, so that Sloane won’t think that there’s something wrong with him. He thinks he mostly succeeds, because she only asks if he’s doing okay once and all she needs to hear is: “Not going on a morning walk is kind of throwing me off.” to get it. 

Ryan sleeps fitfully Sunday night, and is out of bed and dressed before his alarm even goes off. He’s a little careless as he makes his way into the forest, but in his haste to see if Shane is still waiting for him, he doesn’t pay much attention to where he’s stepping. 

As he’s nearing the tree they meet under, Ryan doesn’t notice the tree root he usually steps around because it’s covered up by a fresh layer of snow. One second he’s plowing through the trail, looking out for Shane’s figure, and the next he’s pitching forwards. 

“Shit!” Ryan curses, but before he goes sprawling, a pair of ghostly pale arms curls around his back and yanks him up again. 

“You need to be more careful.” Shane hisses in his ear, and Ryan is so relieved that he turns and throws his arms around him. 

“I’m sorry I was gone!” Ryan tells him. He’s got his arms around Shane’s sides as tight as he can stand it and has his face pressed to Shane’s cold chest. “I didn’t have time to tell you I was leaving. My cousin told me we were going skiing for the weekend as soon as she got home from work on Friday, and I couldn’t--” 

Ryan pauses, suddenly aware of how close he could have come to exposing Shane, and that Shane is not hugging him back. He breathes in the smell of frost and dirt and something metallic on Shane’s shirt and tries not to panic. 

And then Shane exhales sharply and hugs Ryan back, bony arms curling around his shoulders tightly. 

“I’m sorry,” Shane says, voice thick. “I know it’s selfish, but I thought--” 

When he doesn’t finish, Ryan holds him tighter. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to.” 

Shane takes an uneven breath and doesn’t say anything else; instead, he gently folds a hand over the back of Ryan’s head, and the tenderness in the gesture makes Ryan want to sob. He thinks about Sloane holding him the night that he was attacked by the very creature now holding him. He wonders how long it’s been since someone held Shane like this, if he’d ever been held like this before. 

They stand there and cling to each other until Ryan has to leave for work, and all Shane offers him is a, “I’ll see you tomorrow.” before slipping into the trees. Ryan stares at the space he’d just been standing for a long, long time, long enough that he has to race to work to make it. 

After he punches in, wheezing for air but somehow on time, his coworker Yulia assesses him over the rim of her glasses. She’s currently going through the stack of overnight returns and manages to stop Ryan in his tracks while holding an ancient copy of James and the Giant Peach. 

“You’ve never been so late before,” she comments, and though her eyebrows are sharp and severe, her face is not. In fact, she looks positively delighted. “Are you seeing someone?” 

Ryan sputters, trying to decide if he should laugh or balk. “That’s the conclusion you’re jumping to? Is that I’m seeing someone and that’s why I’m late?” 

“I was just wondering if you started seeing someone,” she repeats, smiling knowingly. “It could just be that you slept late, your alarm didn’t go off, you got stuck in traffic, yada yada yada. But seeing someone seems the most logical to me, and your aura and your body language are pointing to yes. Also, your guilty babbling.” 

“What makes you say that?” he asks, instead of answering. 

Yulia shrugs and turns back to her book. “I don’t really know. You’ve just seemed a lot happier lately, that’s all. I’ll catch you staring off into space with this dorky little smile on your face or sparkles in your eyes.” 

“Fuck you, my eyes don’t sparkle.” Ryan laughs. He doesn’t say that he’s not seeing anyone, though, and Yulia’s satisfied smirk says that she heard him loud and clear anyways. 

“Whatever you say, Ryan. Come back and talk to me when you start writing their name in hearts in your notebooks and on late slips.” 

~.~.~  

One morning, when he’s feeling prickly and lonely and weighed down by everything he hasn’t said, Ryan turns to Shane and asks him: 

“Are you ever bothered by the fact that I basically invaded your space?” 

Shane stares at him. “What are you talking about, Ryan?” 

Ryan shrugs (it fucking feels like heaving up a million bricks at once) and doesn’t look at him fully. “I don’t know. I made a big hoopla about coming out here and helping you, but all I do is ask you invasive questions. Do you ever get tired of me coming out here and seeking you out?” 

There’s a weighted pause, where neither of them says anything or moves. Ryan holds his breath, waiting for Shane to admit that Ryan has been slowly and steadily pissing him off, and he genuinely wants Ryan to stay out of the forest forever. But then Shane sighs, and when he loosely circles his icy fingers around Ryan’s wrist, Ryan looks up. 

“Every time I see you, I get to feel human for just a little while.” Shane presses his thumb into Ryan’s pulse, and thankfully says nothing when it picks up. “I know you must think that that means nothing to something as old as I am, but it means everything to me.” 

He doesn’t say anything else, but Ryan thinks he can hear the undercurrent of you mean something to me. It doesn’t fix the hole in his heart, and it doesn’t erase the pain of Eli throwing him away, but it reminds him that there is something to get out of bed in the mornings for, and it helps. 

After another stretch of silence, Ryan tells him, so quiet that even he can hardly hear it: “Me too.” and Shane gives his wrist a small squeeze. 

And maybe it doesn’t fix the hole in his heart, but something about Shane’s thumb on his pulse and the sincerity in his eyes makes Ryan want to try and mend it sooner rather than later. 

~.~.~ 

He knows it’s a dumb idea when he thinks of it, but Ryan’s always been more of a leap-first-look-later kind of person. No matter how many times his ideas have come back to bite him in the ass, he still follows the impulse to act on his rash thoughts as soon as they occur to him. 

It’s just that he’s feeling really good and got some great news, and who better to share it with than his fellow lonely soul? Jake had just called him and told him that his script and score for a short film had been chosen by UCLA’s program to be produced, and Ryan was so proud of him that it made his blood sing. Sloane was out with her group of friends at dinner, so Ryan had decided to go see Shane and tell him about it, later hour be damned. It couldn’t wait until morning to be shared. 

Ryan bundles up and treks out into the woods on a path he could find with his eyes closed now. He hums to himself and grins, thinking about how sweet it’s going to be to see Jake’s final product. He and Sloane will probably watch it together once Jake sends it to him and FaceTime him with their reactions, and Jake will be able to see that Ryan is still so proud of him even if he’s on the other side of the country trying to get his shit together. 

He’s so lost in thought that he doesn’t realize he passed his and Shane’s new meeting spot a while ago, and turns to head back. When he turns, he hears a twig snap somewhere in front of him, and that’s when he realizes that it’s completely dark out in the forest besides the piercing light of the full moon. 

Ryan’s heart stops and he stares out into the darkness, suddenly aware of the situation he’s probably just literally walked himself into. He can barely see a foot in front of him, never mind the thick line of trees that Shane is always slipping in and out of when they see each other. 

Something else snaps, much closer to him, and Ryan feels a sick sense of deja vu. 

“Shane?” he manages to grit out, even though he’s seen enough horror movies to know how this will end. “Is that you?” 

Another twig snaps like a bone being broken in half, and Ryan watches in complete horror as a pair of antlers slides out of the darkness, followed by a bony, bloody figure and a pair of gleaming red eyes. 

He can tell that this wendigo is not Shane just by the way it looks at him. The few times he’s seen Shane in his wendigo form, his eyes have always been soft and searching, red or amber. But this wendigo’s eyes are a burning red, bright with hunger and no trace of humanity left in them for Ryan to plead with. 

Ryan curses himself for never asking how to protect himself against another wendigo, should he run into one that wouldn’t spare his life. All he has is his quick reflexes, his muscles, and the various branches scattered around on the ground. 

The wendigo bares its teeth in a bloody, wicked grin and advances towards Ryan, claws ready to reach out and slice. He waits for the wendigo to get close enough to lunge at him, and then jumps to the side, blindly reaching for a stick long enough to protect himself with. The wendigo’s claws make a thin ringing sound when they cut through the air, inches away from where Ryan had just been standing. 

Ryan gets his hand around an icy stick and brings it up in front of him like a sword. The wendigo makes a sound that might resemble a laugh, but where Shane’s are raspy and warm, this one is full of cruelty. He jumps again when the wendigo goes for him and brings his stick down on its skull, hard enough to kill a human being. The wendigo just wails and stumbles back, face going from pleased to pissed off. 

“Shane!” Ryan calls, his mouth moving faster than his brain. He knows that Shane is the only way he’s going to make it out of the woods alive again, and his only way to get Shane’s attention is to yell for him. The wendigo growls and goes for him again, and Ryan swears when one of its claws catches on his jacket. “Shane!” 

The wendigo roars and barrels towards Ryan, face twisted with animalistic rage. Ryan backs up until he hits a tree, and waits for the wendigo to get close enough to touch him to dive out of the way. The wendigo barely misses him again, but misses enough for Ryan to drive the end of his stick into its pallid, thin belly and scramble away. 

The wendigo’s scream makes all of his bones rattle together, and Ryan backs away from it, trying to keep his wits about him. He’s not sure how long he’s going to last hitting it with a stick before it breaks, or the wendigo catches him off guard and tears his throat right out of his neck.

“Shane!” Ryan tries again, without taking his eyes off of the wendigo. 

It bellows and stands up to its full height, clearly more into the battle than it was at the beginning. Ryan swallows down a whimper and squares his shoulders, thinking that even if he’s going to die, he’s not going to go down without a fight. 

The wendigo charges, claws brandished and jagged teeth bared in a scowl. Ryan swings and the stick catches the wendigo in the chest, throwing it back a few feet. It yelps and pushes forwards and doesn’t stop coming even when Ryan lands another handful of good swings. He goes for the skull again, but the wendigo simply shakes the hit off and keeps advancing. 

When he brings the stick up and jams it into the wendigo’s chest, where its heart is supposed to sit, the wendigo howls loud enough to make his ears hurt. Ryan doesn’t even see its hands move until it’s too late; it wraps one around the middle of the stick, snapping it in half easily, and the other one comes down onto his shoulder. Its claws sink through the fabric of his winter jacket and right into his skin like a group of fire-hot needles. 

Ryan screams, and then yells, “Shane!” as loud as his voice will let him, hoping the desperate edge to it will carry well across the otherwise silent forest. 

The wendigo jerks its claws out of Ryan’s shoulder and he stumbles back, trying to put space between them. He can feel the blood dripping out of the wound in his shoulder, can smell the coppery tinge to it, and it makes his stomach clench. He ends up with his back pressed to a tree, and knows that he has nowhere else to go, and no way to hide from the wendigo. It seems to realize this, too, if the crooked grin taking over its face says anything. Ryan curses and presses down on his shoulder over the wound, hoping that the sharpness of his pain will keep him alert for just a little bit longer. 

The wendigo gurgles happily, stalking up to him, and Ryan almost vomits when he sees chunks of flesh stuck in between its incisors. There’s blood encrusted on the wendigo’s lips and chin and it licks it up eagerly, like it can’t wait to add Ryan’s to the collection. 

It inhales deeply, saliva gathering at the corners of its mouth, and spits out: “Tasty little human,” in a way that tells Ryan just how far gone it is. 

The wendigo looms over him and digs a hand into Ryan’s chest, not hard enough to make him bleed but hard enough to let him know that he’s about to. Ryan bites back another scream, knowing that it’ll only hurt him more, and tries to come up with a way out of this situation. His mind is a white sheet of panic disturbed only by the intense, primal urge to survive. 

Just as the wendigo moves to dig its claws into Ryan’s chest, another pale, bony figure comes hurtling out of the line of trees and right into the wendigo. The two wendigos go down in a heap and the one that tried to kill Ryan shrieks, clawing at the other wendigo viciously. The one that tackled it shrieks back and fights for the upper hand, dodging the bloody claws and gnashing teeth. Ryan sits, paralyzed, as the two wendigos grapple in the snow together, each aiming to kill the other one and take Ryan as its prize. 

The second wendigo ends up on its back as the first kneels on its ribs, trying to sinks its claws into the second one’s chest. Ryan catches sight of the second wendigo’s eyes, sees the fear and the desperation underneath the rage, and tips forwards onto his knees. 

“Shane!” Ryan yells, and Shane hits the first wendigo hard enough to knock it back onto its haunches. While it’s still reeling, moaning and gargling, Shane uses his own sharp claws to plunge them into the wendigo’s chest and pulls its heart out. The wendigo screams in agony, swinging blindly, and then suddenly falls onto its back and doesn’t move again. Shane stands above it, its dark, motionless heart clutched in his inky fingers. 

The two of them pant heavily for a few beats, Shane’s eyes on the wendigo and Ryan’s eyes on Shane. When Shane finally tears his eyes away from the wendigo and looks over at Ryan, Ryan makes a low noise, holding his shoulder tightly. 

“Don’t move,” Shane growls, but he sounds worried instead of angry, so Ryan just nods and bows his head. 

He doesn’t know how long he sits in the snow, shivering and trying to contain the bleeding of his shoulder. For a long moment, he’s trying to get control over his racing heart and thoughts, and then the next, a hand is sliding over the one on his shoulder and gently pulling it away. 

“How badly did it hurt you?” Shane asks, voice back to his human persona. 

Ryan looks up at him. Shane is covered in flecks of blood and dirt, but otherwise looks unharmed. When Ryan glances behind him, the wendigo’s body is gone, along with its heart; the only thing indicating a fight happened between it and Ryan is a pool of black liquid on the white snow. 

“It just got my shoulder,” Ryan tells him. The hand dangling by his side moves to curl around Shane’s elbow. “Are you hurt at all?” 

Shane closes his eyes and breathes in. “No, I’m not injured.” 

“That’s good,” Ryan whispers, and then, “I’m sorry. Thank you.” 

Shane’s eyes flicker open again, and instead of amber, they’re back to a glowing, haunting red. Ryan barely suppresses a whimper at the sight of them, and he flinches away, hand tightening on Shane’s elbow. Shane takes another deep breath, but doesn’t school his eyes back to amber. Instead, he brings his other hand around Ryan’s side and says: 

“Let’s go.” 

Ryan doesn’t ask where they’re going because, both despite and as a result of everything that’s happened to him in the past fifteen minutes, he trusts Shane with his life. He simply lets Shane manhandle him onto his back and lets him carry them farther into the woods, his forehead pressed to the back of Shane’s neck. As soon as his feet leave the ground, he’s overwhelmed by the feeling of exhaustion, and time begins to swim as Shane walks them away from the scene of the fight.

When he looks up again, they’re headed into a cave. It looks lived-in, with a pile of furs in one corner and a firepit set up in the center. 

“How do you keep others out of here?” Ryan asks, a little delirious from the pain and the shock. It’s the first thing he notices other than the fact that his arm feels like it’s on fire.

“Glamour,” Shane tells him shortly, and sets Ryan down in front of the fire pit. 

Ryan still has one hand pressed to his shoulder, his blood dripping sluggishly in between his fingers. He feels cold and dizzy, so while Shane moves around the cave, Ryan pulls his knees up and rests his arm over them to ease the ache in it. His eyes droop shut again, and the sound of Shane dragging wood towards the fire pit and hissing under his breath act as ambient background noise. 

He must fall asleep at some point. One moment, Ryan is cold and throbbing all over, and the next he’s pleasantly warm in front of a fire and Shane is gently prying his hand off of his torn-up shoulder. 

“I need to look at it,” Shane tells him softly. His eyes are still a blazing red, but Ryan can easily see the worry and the softness underneath it, and he doesn’t flinch away this time. “Will you let me?” 

“Of course,” Ryan says, words a little slurred. “I trust you.” 

Shane’s mouth thins out when he says this, but otherwise doesn’t reply. He coaxes Ryan out of his ruined winter coat and then out of his equally ruined Henley, until Ryan is in nothing but his ruined grey t-shirt. Shane rolls his left sleeve up until it’s tucked into the collar of the shirt, and examines the wound. 

“It didn’t get you deep enough to damage anything, but you’re going to have scars.” Shane’s throat clicks, and then he says, “I’m going to fix you up as best as I can.” 

“Thank you,” Ryan replies, and finds Shane’s hand with the one not covered in blood. “I owe you my life.” 

Shane lets their hands fall away when he gets up to fetch what he needs. It’s then that Ryan realizes that there’s something wrong, deeper than him being attacked by another wendigo. That Shane has barely looked at him since finding him, that Shane has barely said a word about the attack. That he won’t let Ryan touch him for longer than a second. 

He lets Shane work while he thinks of what to say. Shane takes the ruined Henley and tears it up until he has a few long strips of clean fabric. He uses one strip to mop up what blood he can without hurting Ryan, uses another as a makeshift gauze wrap, and a third to tie everything together. When the wounds are cleaned and covered, Ryan lets out a deep breath, and Shane looks at him for a long moment, the longest he’s looked at Ryan since they got to the cave. And then he looks away, jaw tight, and starts to clean off the dried blood on Ryan’s arm around the wound. 

Ryan bides his time. When Shane has most of the blood off and ends the cleaning process by soothing a thumb over Ryan’s inner bicep, so soft that Ryan almost doesn’t feel it at all, he simply says: 

“Shane.” 

Shane looks at him, eyebrows furrowed in concern. “Did I hurt you? I’m sorry.” 

Ryan shakes his head. “No, you didn’t. But you keep acting like you did.” 

The concern becomes rage almost immediately. Shane pulls his hands away from Ryan, and then himself, putting the burning fire in between them. 

“I could have hurt you, you know.” Shane says, voice trembling. “When I’m in my true form, it’s harder for me to control myself. Especially during a territorial fight with another wendigo.” 

“So that’s what happened?” Ryan asks, ignoring the first part. “A wendigo came into your territory?” 

“The wendigo who haunted these woods before was much older than I am, but I was able to overpower and kill it in a fight many years ago. Just like the fight between me and that other wendigo tonight. This has been my territory for decades. I don’t take too kindly to others invading my space.” 

He’s talking about wendigos, but Ryan distinctly hears part of that sentence directed at him. 

“Why do I get the feeling that you think I’m invading your space, too?” 

Shane’s knuckles go white around the torn remains of his Henley. “That’s not what I meant.” 

“You haven’t looked at me since we got here,” Ryan says, voice rising. “And that whole spiel about having your territory invaded? It’s clear that you still don’t think I belong out here.” 

“Because you don’t!” Shane shouts, eyes sizzling. His antlers are starting to take over his ears, glamour hanging on by a thread. “Not after the sun sets! You’re supposed to stick to the morning time, when I know that you’re going to be here! Coming into these woods after dark is dangerous, and it’s when all the others come out to find food.”  

“I was trying to find you.” Ryan means for it to come out as loud as Shane’s words, but it falls flat, closer to hurt. “I wanted to see you and tell you about something. I was too excited to wait until morning.” 

Shane snarls, and in the firelight, he looks demonic. Ryan feels a flicker of fear that he can’t immediately squash. 

“You should have just stayed away, like I told you.” Shane’s antlers have fully taken form, and his bones are starting to take their pointed shape. His skin goes sallow and thin, and his teeth become jagged and hellish. “From the beginning, you should have left while I gave you the chance!” 

“Shane--” Ryan says, his voice breaking. 

“I don’t think that you understand me!” Shane bellows, shoulders hunching and fingers elongating into the same kind of claws that tore Ryan’s shoulder up. “I don’t let others infringe on my territory! If another creature tries to come into my forest and take what’s mine, I don’t rest until they’re dead!” 

Ryan feels his stomach turn to ice. He says nothing, too afraid of what Shane will do to him if he tries to speak again. 

“I’ve been fighting for almost a hundred years. I’ve been fighting to keep what’s mine for a hundred years, and I’m not going to stop now. I will fight to the death for what belongs to me. And you--” 

Shane seems to come back to himself a little, and Ryan sees some of the rage turn into agony, much like the night Shane almost killed him. It makes his breath catch, and Shane’s face crumples. 

“You are part of that.” Shane tells him. He sounds absolutely wrecked, underneath the rumbling in his voice. “Somehow, you became part of that territory, and you don’t even realize it. That when you come out here without me, you’re putting yourself in danger, and others will try to take you.” 

Ryan gasps, so quietly that the crackling fire almost drowns it out. But Shane hears it, must hear it like a scream, because he grits his jagged teeth like Ryan just gutted him. 

“Do you even know what you did tonight? What you could have done to me? That wendigo could have killed you, and would have done so without a second thought. If it succeeded, I wouldn’t have had to just destroy it--I would have had to destroy everything. I wouldn’t have been able to rest until there was nothing left for me to ruin.” 

When Ryan still says nothing, when all he does is stare at Shane like he’s never seen him before, Shane grins without any of his usual warmth. 

“Do you see now?” Shane asks, this time much quieter. “That wendigo didn’t just come for my forest, my territory. It came for you.” 

They look at each other for a long, heavy moment. The fire crackling is the only noise that passes between them, and all Ryan sees is Shane’s eyes, filled with so much emotion that he can’t even discern one from another. His head is so full of questions and thoughts that he wants to say, and then it’s completely empty except for the word ‘you.’ 

Shane moves forwards, so quietly and smoothly that if Ryan wasn’t watching every move he made, he wouldn’t have noticed at all. When Shane is right in front of him, Ryan feels himself animate again, like he’s coming up for air from the bottom of a pool, and Shane’s eyes flicker between red and amber at the second, louder gasp he releases. He leans down, in all of his hulking, massive glory, and tells Ryan: 

“When I take you back to the entrance of the forest, I want you to leave and never come back.” 

The words hit Ryan like a slap. The finality in them is inarguable, unbreakable like a steel wall, and so deadly serious that it makes his heart throb. But then Ryan lets them sink in, mix with the words about being something that Shane would kill for, and he grits his teeth. 

“No.” Ryan says, soft but just as deadly serious. 

“Ryan--” Shane’s voice trembles dangerously, like he’s going to yell again, but he just barely manages to contain it. “Please. I need you to listen to me just this once. Leave and don’t come back!” 

“I’m not going to leave you after all of this!” Ryan snaps, because Shane doesn’t seem to get it either. “After all the time we’ve spent together, after all of the ways that you’ve saved me! I can’t just walk away.” 

He looks Shane right in his bloody red eyes and tells him: “I’m not leaving you out here alone.” 

Shane’s face changes just long enough for Ryan to see the way his words make him truly feel. He sees overwhelming joy, fondness, and warmth. He sees everything he feels when he sees Shane melt out of the trees, easy grin already in place and a discussion topic at the ready. 

And then it slams shut again, cold anger in its place. 

“I was made to be alone,” Shane tells him, voice a dangerous grumble, like the moments just before a storm begins. It echoes throughout the cave, a white noise that makes Ryan grit his teeth. “Being alone is in my nature. It’s what I’m destined for.” 

“Bullshit.” Ryan spits. “You’re not like the other wendigos who come into these woods. You said it yourself--that wendigo would have killed me without a second thought. You saved my life!” 

“Your life is worth saving!” Shane yells, clenching his fists. “You have a life, Ryan! I don’t have anything outside of this body and this forest! I don’t have anything besides my fate!” 

Shane’s thin, pointed ribs are expanding under his skin fast enough that Ryan’s afraid they’ll break free. It takes every single piece of his self control to not reach out and place his palms on them, hold them inside of Shane’s frail body.

“This is what I became! This is what I turned into all those years ago. I became a monster.” Ryan’s shaking his head before Shane even finishes, but Shane doesn’t let him argue. “Do you know how you become a monster, Ryan? When you take something that doesn’t belong to you.” 

Ryan’s hands move to touch him of their own accord, but Shane steps away, almost directly into the fire. 

“But I do belong to you,” Ryan tells him, hands curling into fists. “I thought you made that crystal fucking clear. I’m your territory.” 

Shane releases a pained roar, keeping the distance in between them. “When you’re in these woods, you are my territory. But you never belonged to me. You’re never going to belong to me, Ryan. Taking what doesn’t belong to me is what got me here in the first place.” 

This is it, Ryan thinks to himself, breath catching in his throat. This is how Shane Alexander Madej became a wendigo. 

As if he can read Ryan’s thoughts, Shane laughs, the sound a humorless, angry rasp. “Some wendigos become flesheaters because they were forced to become flesheaters in their human lives. Forced to turn to cannibalism in a moment of pure, irreversible desperation. If a human turns to eating another human out here, where wendigos reside, they can become a wendigo themselves. That’s how many of the first wendigos were turned, back when cannibalism was common.”

There’s a pause, one that tells Ryan all he needs to know. That Shane is a wendigo for a completely different reason. 

“But others are turned because of their greed for something other than food,” Shane says, face growing even more somber. “Some of us become these hungry, starving beasts because we desire something unattainable, and we let its absence consume us.”

His face goes from anguished to rageous in the blink of an eye, and Ryan suddenly finds one of Shane’s claws at the base of his throat, right underneath his chin. He barely breathes, in case the claw decides to dig in and rip. 

“Have you ever wanted something so badly that you let it control your every waking thought? Your every waking move? Let it control even the way you inhale and exhale? The dreams you have at night?” 

Ryan finds it within himself to say: “Yes.” in the steadiest voice he can manage. 

“And I knew that, from the moment you entered this forest. I could smell it on you--your pain, your fear, your longing, your uncontrollable desire for something you couldn’t have. I could have made you a wendigo, if I didn’t decide to spare you, or kill you. I could have made you like me.” 

“You think just because I’m not like you that I’m not like you?” Ryan reaches out again, slow, steady, and when Shane doesn’t jerk away, moves a palm until it’s curled around his skeletal wrist, the one that’s close enough to end his life. “That I don’t know all the ways hunger could kill me?” 

“I eat and eat and eat, and I’m never satisfied!” Shane yells the words, but even still, Ryan can see the brightness in his eyes. Anyone else would see animalistic rage, but all he sees is pain. “The greed that brought me here has only grown worse, insatiable, harder to ignore. I’m cursed to starve for all of eternity! Cursed to roam the earth, hungry for human flesh and hungry for reprieve! Hungry for life and hungry for death!” 

The more that Shane yells, the angier that he gets, the more his bones thin into points. Ryan feels one of Shane’s nails dig into his chin, and blood wells up underneath it, rolling down his throat like a teardrop. Shane has grown thin enough that Ryan’s afraid his skin is going to snap off and leave nothing but a skeleton in its wake, just as jagged and gnarled as the rest of him. And yet-- 

And yet, Ryan can still see Shane as nothing more but a lost, aching human being. All he can see is the way Shane smiles when Ryan talks about his brother, and the way Shane cries when he thinks about his own brother. All he can see is the softness and warmth that Shane still possesses, even after being a wendigo for more than a hundred years. 

“You said that you saw yourself within me,” Ryan tells him, ignoring the blood dribbling down his neck. “And that was why you spared me. Remember? That means that there are still so many parts of you that are human. That there are so many parts of myself that I see you. I’m already like you.” 

“You’re wrong,” Shane says, like he can’t let himself believe that Ryan is right. “There’s nothing left in me except this curse and this desire for something I can never find.” 

Ryan uses his hold on Shane’s wrist to turn his hand, ignoring the blood that follows its movement. He turns Shane’s hand over until his claws frame Ryan’s face, and his cheek is settled firmly into his cold, bloody palm. Shane stares at him, doesn’t stop him, seems to be holding his breath. 

“What made you so greedy?” Ryan asks, because he still doesn’t know, but he also does. “So hungry that you had to stay that way for all of eternity?” 

Shane doesn’t say anything for a long, choked minute. Ryan thinks that, maybe, he’s not going to answer, or he’s going to answer without telling him anything, and Ryan is going to be left with nothing but a sense of desperation and a hysterical need to put all of Shane’s pieces back together. 

And then Shane presses his crooked thumb into Ryan’s cheek in an unmistakable caress, and leans in, says very quietly and very devastatingly: 

“What made me so greedy is what makes every single soul on Earth greedy. So greedy that people choose to die and live for it.” Shane leans in so close that Ryan can see his temple bones shifting under his parchment skin. “The desire to be loved.” 

They are the words Ryan longed and feared most to hear. The thought of someone being so neglected and touch-starved that they became a monster is both unfathomable and unquestionable to him. He presses his face into Shane’s palm and curls both hands around his wrist. Shane makes another rumbling sound, but it’s closer to a whine than a growl. His pointed fingers flex around Ryan’s cheek, like he wants to touch more but he doesn’t want to hurt.

“I wanted to find love so badly that I let the lack of it destroy me. My skin, my bones, my soul, my mind ached to be loved and to have someone to love in return. I searched everywhere for it, and instead of finding love, I found eternal suffering.” Shane presses in closer, so that his red eyes are almost blinding. “Having greed like that always comes with a price. And when it comes to wendigos… hunger is the reason for everything. Our existence, our reign, our suffering. I was so hungry and greedy that I drew the creatures in and came out the other end as one.” 

He brings his other jagged hand up to cup Ryan’s face; the balance between horror and tenderness brings hot, heavy tears to his eyes. 

“They could have eaten me,” Shane whispers, like it’s the hardest thing he’s ever said. “But instead they turned me into one of them. Instead of showing me mercy, they made me pay for my greediness in the cruelest way possible. They made it so that I would never be able to forget what it’s like to want.” 

Ryan finally finds his voice, underneath the agonizing wash of pain and anger he feels hearing about Shane’s demise. “Who left you that wounded? Who wouldn’t love you?” 

Shane smiles sadly. “Probably the same person who left you as wounded as you were when you came here. A boy you loved so much that when he couldn’t love you back anymore, it broke more than your heart.” 

Ryan sees Eli’s unruly curls and his beautiful, familiar green eyes appear in his mind, like a knife splitting his chest wide open, like a hot brand pressing into every exposed nerve he didn’t know he had. The tears finally spill over and Shane collects them as best as he can, hands comforting despite feeling like ice and caked with blood and dirt. 

“It was the beginning of the 1900s,” Shane says, his voice catching painfully. “I knew that it wasn’t even in the realm of possibilities. I knew that it could never last. But I still loved him with everything I had inside of my body, and when he walked away, it left me like a plague raveging the planet. It pulled out all of my insides and put them in a grave next to my heart.”

Ryan sobs and Shane just holds him through it, lets him feel all of those emotions like it’s the first time he came into these woods. 

“Do you see why you have to leave now?” Shane asks him, the words full of anguish and so much adoration that it makes Ryan sob harder. “Why you can’t ever come back? If others find you, they’ll turn you into a sick, starving monster like me. I can’t be saved, but you can. You have so much to live for. You can find love again.” 

Ryan blinks up at him through the curtain of tears, and thinks viciously: Haven’t I already found love again?

Instead, he says: “You deserve to find love. You deserve to be loved.” 

Shane laughs humorlessly, gently running his thumbs underneath Ryan’s wet eyes. “Wanting to be loved is what put me here, in this endless cycle of death and grief. I didn’t deserve it then, and I don’t deserve it now.” 

Ryan moves one hand from Shane’s wrist to his face. He fits his trembling fingers around Shane’s sunken cheek, his thin, pointed jaw, against his cracked lips. The groan Shane releases is full of the kind of pain that comes from years and years of torture and hope, and he pushes into Ryan’s hand like he couldn’t stop himself if he tried. 

“You keep saying that love is what put you here, that it’s what doomed you to always search for something you’d never be able to find,” Ryan says, voice steady despite the tears and the trembling. “But what if it can save you, too?” 

Shane’s eyes close briefly. He looks like he’s going to break in half under the weight of his hunger and his longing. “You think you can save me? That a human could save a starving, greedy, flesh-eating monster from itself?” 

Ryan inhales sharply, and when Shane’s eyes flicker open again, he says: “I think you’ve forgotten that humans are the hungriest monsters of all.” 

These words seem to trigger their own set of memories in Shane. He looks like he’s moment from falling apart, like he’s holding onto his resolve by the skin of his crooked teeth. 

“Come back to me,” Ryan whispers, giving Shane a small, firm shake. “Let me help you.” 

Shane’s hands tighten around his cheeks, long nails digging into Ryan’s skin like a million little pinpricks. After a moment of Ryan watching Shane battle with himself, with all the different pieces of his whole, Shane manages to shrink back into his glamoured self. His claws are replaced by smooth, gentle fingers, his antlers sink back into his head, his skin thickens over his long, thin bones. When Ryan is finally met with teary amber eyes, he tells Shane : “You belong to me.” and Shane sobs so hard that it sounds like a howl. 

Ryan folds Shane up into his arms and holds him while he cries. Shane clings to him, still so big but so fucking small in Ryan’s embrace. Ryan carefully cups a hand around the back of his head, slides his fingers into Shane’s messy, wild hair in a move that mirrors both Shane’s and Sloane’s. He says I would protect you with my life without having to say it out loud. Shane hears it so loudly that it makes him tremble, makes him clench his hands in Ryan’s ruined, bloody t-shirt and press his face into Ryan’s ruined, bloody shoulder. 

When Shane’s tears have slowed, and he’s breathing deeply against Ryan’s skin, Ryan tells him: 

“I’m going to save you, one way or another.” He says it fiercely, biting and unforgiving like the cut of a wendigo’s claws. “I’m not going to rest until I find a way to get you out of here. And I’m not going to leave you, no matter what. You belong to me, Shane Madej.” 

“You belong to me,” Shane replies, faint but sincere. 

Ryan closes his eyes, relieved and so full of love for this creature that he could burst from it. Shane doesn’t move away from Ryan, so Ryan doesn’t move away from him. While the fire crackles in front of them, and the wind howls through the trees outside of the cave, Ryan combs his hand through Shane’s hair and promises that, no matter what, he’s not going to accept that Shane has to stay like this for the rest of time. He’s not going to stop until Shane is human again. He’s not going to stop until Shane knows that he’s worthy of love and forgiveness, and that it can still be found after all of these years, after all of this pain and suffering. Because humans might be the hungriest monsters of all, but the love that makes them hungry transcends above all else, can inspire peace and conquer hate. 

Can make a monster and then unmake it.  

~.~.~

When they manage to pull themselves together, Shane carries Ryan back to the mouth of the forest. He makes Ryan promise him over and over again that he’ll rest for a few days and clean his wounds religiously, and in return, Ryan makes him promise not to flee. 

“I’m not going to take off,” Shane swears, depositing Ryan back onto the ground. It’s the closest Shane has ever come out of the woods, so close that they can see the steam curling out of Sloane’s house from her heater. “I know that you would just follow after me.” 

“Damn right I would,” Ryan tells him, firm and wobbly at the same time. “You need to rest tonight, too.” 

Shane rolls his eyes, and smiles softly. He looks hollowed out and exhausted, but also like he would rather do anything else than leave Ryan’s side. It makes Ryan’s heart swell up like a balloon. 

“I will if you will.” 

“Deal,” Ryan vows, and then sticks his hand out for a shake. 

Shane takes it and shakes firmly, and then he pulls Ryan closer to him with it. Ryan’s breath stutters, and he stares up at Shane with wide, wide eyes when he bends down and whispers: 

“Do not come out here again at night.” He pulls Ryan’s hand up to his lips, so close that he can feel the words they form. “If you do, I will be the one who ends up killing you for acting so idiotically.” 

And then he presses a long, lingering kiss to Ryan’s raw knuckles and steps away before Ryan can even comprehend what’s going on. His eyes are bright when he makes a little waving motion and tells him: “Go on. I’m not leaving until you get inside.” 

Ryan wants to do a million and one other things besides leave, but the buzzing in his head and the lingering pain are enough to make him listen. He gives Shane a small, incredulous smile and a: “I’ll see you soon.” before making his way to Sloane’s house. He looks behind himself again when he gets to the back door, and gets one last glimpse of pale skin and ruby red eyes before Shane is gone, melting back into the trees like a phantom. 

When he gets inside, he scarfs down some cold pizza while listening to the voicemail Sloane left on his phone telling him that she’d be gone for the rest of the night. After he eats more pizza and drinks a glass of water, he forces himself into the shower with the Henley bits still wrapped around his torn shoulder. And when he’s done showering, he painstakingly pulls the Henley pieces off and cleans his wounds, swearing and cussing and silently grateful that Shane kicked the other wendigo’s ass. 

After his wounds are cleaned, and he’s tucked into bed, he looks at his ceiling, thinks of Shane pulling the other wendigo’s heart out and the way he lovingly, adoringly kissed Ryan’s hand, and says out loud to himself: 

“Whatever it takes. I’ll do whatever it takes to get you out of there.” 

~.~.~

Any time that Ryan isn’t in the woods with Shane or at home with Sloane, he’s at the library trying to figure out how to undo this curse. 

His coworkers question him about it at first, but all Ryan has to do is smile and say: “I’m writing a new script! I’m hoping that something fun and supernatural-themed will help me to get out of my slump!” and they accept it without another thought. Yulia says, “Cool, dude, let me know if I can play the badass bisexual main character or something.” and even Aaron, who’s usually a pretty quiet, unenthusiastic dude, says, “Sounds sweet.” They leave him to it, and on lunch breaks, for a few minutes before his shift starts, in between busy times, and for a few hours after his shift ends, Ryan is combing their occult/urban legends section. Which, for a tiny library in the middle of Absolutely Nowhere, Upper Peninsula of Michigan, is pretty large. 

At the beginning of his research on wendigos and their curse, he doesn’t find a lot. Mostly information on how wendigos came to be and what they’re supposed to look like and why they eat what they eat. Some of it Ryan already knows because of Shane, but a lot of it is stuff that Shane has either omitted from his explanations or is inaccurate. He’s found a few things that Shane has disputed for him already, so Ryan makes a mental note to take everything with an enormous grain of salt and kick his critical thinking skills into high gear. 

He loses a lot of sleep over it, to exactly no one’s surprise. It starts as wanting to cram as much reading into the day as he can to find the countercurse as quickly as possible, but soon bleeds into other reasons. It turns into having vicious nightmares about wendigos, about Shane losing his ability to use glamour and being permanently stuck in his wendigo form. And then, when Ryan is running on a few hours of sleep stretched over a few days, it becomes about losing Shane, about not being able to help him, about not being able to save this being he’s fallen so deeply, inescapably in love with. 

Ryan is used to running on little to no sleep because of his fascination with the paranormal and its effect on his dreams. He’s used to hiding how exhausted he is, and everyone in his life is used to seeing the deep, dark circles under his eyes. So no one really notices how his sleeping goes from poor to non-existent--except for Shane. 

“You’re going to make yourself sick,” Shane says to him one morning. The sky is still dark around the edges, a swirl of black, purple, and blue like the bruises under Ryan’s eyes. Shane gently cups his face with his hands, tilting Ryan’s head this way and that. “How much sleep have you been getting?” 

“Enough to live off of,” Ryan says, not meeting his eyes. “I don’t sleep a lot anyways, you know that.” 

Shane makes a noise that vaguely resembles a growl. “You can’t run yourself into the ground trying to help me, Ryan. That’s not how this works. If ‘saving’ me is going to hurt you, then you’re not doing it.” 

The combination of Shane being difficult and self-sacrificing and Ryan being cranky off of so little sleep and so much worry makes him frown. He glares up at Shane, wide awake in the worst way possible. 

“You think that I’m able to just switch it off? That I can tell my body to calm down while you’re out here, starving and suffering?” He pushes a finger into Shane’s unbeating heart. “If our places were reversed, would you be getting eight hours a night and waking up refreshed and ready for a brand new day?” 

Shane glares back at him, and then looks away, shaking his head. 

“No. I’d be tearing up the ends of the universe trying to figure it out.” 

Ryan’s frown softens and he lays his hand flat, moves it until it’s curled around the back of Shane’s neck. “Exactly. I told you that I won’t rest until I find a way to save you, and I meant it, big guy. Me losing sleep is nothing compared to what’s going to happen if I can’t get you out of this mess.” 

When he has to leave for work, Shane walks him to the edge of the forest like usual. Ryan tells him goodbye, promises to see him again the next morning, and Shane tells him goodbye, that he’ll see Ryan when he comes back. And then he cups a hand around the back of Ryan’s head and kisses him softly on the forehead, tells him to have a good day, and slips back into the trees. 

Ryan floats back to Sloane’s house, a stupid grin on his face and hand brushing the spot that Shane kissed so sweetly. But when he reaches the back door, he leans against it for a long while and breathes deeply, thinking about how if he fails, he’s never going to feel a soft, sweet kiss like that ever again. Ryan has never been that religious, but this morning, he tips his head against the door and looks up at the bruised sky and whispers: 

“Please, if anyone is listening, help me out just this once.” Ryan chokes down a sob. “Please help me save him. He doesn’t deserve to live like this.” 

~.~.~  

It’s pushing 6 P.M. when Ryan gets an epiphany of sorts. He hasn’t thought about his friends back in L.A. much, besides sending stuff in the group chat they have and FaceTiming a few of them, but he thinks about them now, when he’s elbow-deep in dusty books about Michigan urban legends and heartsick for Shane Alexander Madej. 

Very specifically, he thinks about the friend who is pretty into spirituality and believes in a lot of the same things he does. The only friend who doesn’t think it’s weird that he refuses to go near fairy rings or play Bloody Mary. 

He leaves his table and goes out into the little foyer area between the entrance to the building and the entrance to the library, fishing his phone out of his hoodie. 

Tania picks up on the third ring. “What’s up, Bergara?” 

Ryan hasn’t heard her sarcastic, Australian-accented voice in weeks, and he fights down the ever present wave of tears he feels at the sound of it. “Hey, Tan, I wanted to ask you something. It’s going to sound really weird, but you were the only person I could think of who could help me.” 

There’s a brief pause. “Ryan, are you in trouble?” 

“No.” And then, “Kind of, but I’m not the one in trouble, if that makes sense.” 

“What do you need? I can be there in a day, probably, but no less than 24 hours. Flights to obscure places in the Midwest are hard to come by.” 

“Thanks, dude, but it’s not that kind of trouble.” Ryan laughs, maybe for the first time in days. “It’s… Okay, this is going to sound strange, and I don’t know if I can explain it to you. I might not be able to right now.” 

She pauses again, and then says: “Ryan, tell me what you need. No unnecessary questions asked, as long as it helps you solve your problem. All I ask is that you tell me right now if you’re in serious danger.” 

“I’m not in serious danger. It’s… something supernatural.” 

“All right,” Tania replies without judgement. “What kind of supernatural problem is this?” 

“There’s someone I know who’s stuck in a supernatural curse of sorts. I wanted to know if you know any resources on how to help them undo the curse.” 

Tania makes a humming noise. “Supernatural curse? I might… I’m not well-versed on curses themselves or how to undo them, but I know another person who might. He’s aces with occult stuff. I can give you his number and let him know what you’re looking for.” 

Ryan’s shoulders relax, and he sends a quick thank-you to the universe for gifting him with Tania Safi. “You’re the best. Thank you.” 

“Of course. Let me know if you need anything else, okay? I will track down a flight to wherever the fuck you snuck off to if I have to, mate.” 

“I will. Love you, Tan.” 

“Love you too, Bergara.” 

After they hang up the phone, Ryan receives a text from Tania containing another L.A. area code phone number and a message that says: his name is curly. he knows all sorts of shit about spn stuff. good luck idiot. Ryan grins at Tania’s gruff affection and immediately presses down on Curly’s highlighted number to call it. 

A man with a light, humored voice picks up. “I’ve been expecting you, Mr. Ryan Bergara.” 

“Um, hi. Curly, right?” 

“The one and only! Our lovely mutual friend said you had some questions about a curse?” 

Ryan sighs, thunking his head back against a window. “Oh boy, do I.” 

~.~.~  

Working with Curly is a time and a half, but he makes the process of trying to find a way to save Shane bearable. He’s sweet, funny, and extremely knowledgeable; basically, he’s everything Ryan strives to be. 

The first time Ryan called him, Curly listened to Ryan’s situation in its very vague entirety, and simply said: “Ryan, honey, I can tell that you’re extremely in love with this boy without you even having to say it, so I’m going to need you to tell me what’s really going on so I can help you save him.” and that’s all it took for Ryan to unload it all onto Curly. He explained his move to Michigan and the reasons behind it, Shane tracking him in the woods and almost killing him before letting him go, Ryan going back to find him, Shane explaining what wendigos were and what they did, and Shane rescuing him from another older, entirely mad wendigo. By the time he was done telling Curly about the past few months, Ryan had been leaning against a library window for a half an hour and quietly crying for half of it. When he finished, Curly told him that he was brave, and so was Shane, and that he would help them find a way out of this as best as he could. 

It’s pushing close to December, and Curly has been assisting Ryan in his research for two weeks now. With a combination of Curly’s occult knowledge and resources and Ryan’s knack for investigating the supernatural, they’ve compiled a lot of theories, evidence, and possible rituals on wendigos and their curse. Ryan feels like they’re on the brink of something, right on the edge of figuring out how to fix the mess that’s been made, but they can’t quite find the key that fits into the lock. 

“I know you’re anxious and you want him back,” Curly tells him one night while they’re on Skype. “But you need to take a deep breath. Even if he doesn’t have it, this is going to take some time. Wendigos have been roaming around the northern Midwest since before Columbus came and fucked America up. We’re not going to be able to undo the wendigo’s curse in a week when it’s been in those woods for over 600 years.” 

Ryan drops his pen and puts his head in his hands. “You’re right. I’m sorry, Curly, I’m trying. Thank you for putting up with me.” 

“No problem at all, babe. This is what friends are for.” 

Ryan looks up from his hands again to where Curly is idly picking through an old tome. Ryan studies him in the shitty laptop camera and light, thinking about the way Curly has basically dropped everything to help Ryan figure out how to save Shane. 

“I mean it, Curly.” 

Curly looks up too, meeting Ryan’s eyes. 

“I--” Ryan clears his throat, tries not to cry because all he’s done is cry for the past month. “Without your help, I’d still be at the starting point. I’d still be trying to figure out what the hell I’m supposed to do to save him. And I know that we haven’t figured it out just yet, but we’re somewhere, and I wouldn’t be there without you. You taking all this time out of your day to help me solve this hundreds year old curse means a lot to me.” 

Curly’s face is so soft that it does make Ryan cry a little, and he huffs, swiping a hand over his face. 

“Hey honey, I know you mean it. I know that me helping you out means a lot to you because that boy means everything to you.” 

Ryan nods, laughing and sobbing at the same time. Curly makes an aborted movement, like he wants to put an arm around Ryan but forgot that there’s a camera separating them. 

“I’m not promising that we’re going to figure something out soon, or even at all because the supernatural works so strangely and complicatedly, and there might not be a way to undo what’s been done. But I promise that I’m going to keep helping you until there’s nothing else we can do. I want to help you, no matter what it takes, okay?” 

“Thank you,” Ryan chokes out. “Thank you so much.” 

Curly smiles, a smile that’s loving and sad in a way that Ryan knows well. “I… I know what it’s like to lose someone to a curse. I got into all of this because of it. I know how devastating it is. I don’t want that to happen to someone like you, Ryan.” 

“I’m sorry,” Ryan tells him, voice breaking. “I’m really sorry to hear that.” 

“It’s okay, babe. It was a long time ago.” Curly’s face falls for a moment, but then smooths out again, loving smile back in its place. “You’re the last person that I would want it to happen to. So we’re going to put our heads together and win this fight, okay? And if we can’t…” 

Curly swallows, and Ryan’s heart sinks with it, thinking once again about the possibility that Shane might really be doomed to his fate. 

“If we can’t, then you’ll have someone to help you through this, okay? There will still be someone who loves you waiting to hold you up.” 

Ryan nods, and Curly gives him a few moments to collect himself. After Ryan wipes all the tears away and takes a deep, shaking breath, he says, “I think we should try rituals with blood involved, since wendigos are cannibals.” and they start on blood rituals without talking about failing again. 

The next morning, after a long call with Curly and some more gentle words exchanged and another sleepless night, Ryan heads out on his morning walk. Shane meets him where he always does, and Ryan feels a little more fragile than usual, so instead of speaking about their research or anything related to occult stuff, he goes to Shane and hugs him tightly. Shane hugs Ryan back immediately, lips pressed to the crown of his head. 

“It’s okay if you’re losing hope.” Shane says, many silent minutes later. 

“I’m not losing hope,” Ryan tells him. “If I lose hope, then I lose you.” 

And Shane doesn’t say anything for the rest of their time together, so neither does Ryan. They just hold each other and try to think about this moment and not all the ones that are going to fall upon them sooner rather than later. 

~.~.~  

One morning, after many hours of blizzarding snow and howling wind, broken only by the rising sun, Shane turns to him and purses his lips. They’d been talking quietly about the difference between winters in California and in Michigan, and then fell into a comfortable silence for a few moments afterwards. Ryan watches as Shane reaches for the words he wants to say, a sick feeling entering his stomach. 

“Ryan--” Shane stops, and then starts. He thinks some more, and continues. “I know that you’ve been working really hard on trying to help ‘save’ me from the wendigo’s curse, but you need to know that--that I have to start gathering supplies for winter soon.” 

“What do you mean?” 

Shane looks away, out towards the deeper part of the woods. His face is tense and thin in a way that Ryan hasn’t seen since Shane saved him from the other wendigo. 

“I know you’ve never seen me feeding, but you know that I have been, right?” 

Ryan doesn’t let himself think about it much. It was the only wendigo-related question he refused to ask Shane, and was infinitely grateful that he never offered up any information on it. He played the game of ‘ignore it until it goes away’ when it came to Shane’s diet; the only time he let himself think about it was the day after Shane ate. He always knew because Shane would look a little more filled out around the edges, a little warmer and less haggard. And then Shane would go back to his usual pale, brittle self the next day, and Ryan’s brain would shut it out again.  

“Yeah.” Ryan replies, trying not to blanch. 

Shane sighs and pulls his hand away from where it had gently been holding Ryan’s. “As you can guess, feeding is difficult for a wendigo, even in the summertime when humans often go hiking in this forest. It’s hard to find food, whether we want it or not. That’s why I told you it’s so dangerous to be out here--violent nature of a wendigo aside, when we find food, we have to take it or face starvation.” 

Ryan can see where this is going. He shivers, hoping that his large winter jacket conceals it well. 

“And in the winter…” Shane sighs again and forces himself to look at Ryan. “It’s impossible to find food. We usually feed as much as we can before winter really sets in, around the middle of December, and go into hibernation mode. Hibernation mode requires preparation.” 

Ryan’s gut flips. “You mean--” 

“I have to gather up as much food as I can and store it.” 

“How?” Ryan asks, before his mind can tell him that it’s best to leave the information where it is. 

This time, Shane blanches. “It’s a combination of glamour and a mummification process of sorts. I have to keep them alive long enough to eat, but not alive enough to escape.” 

“Christ,” Ryan whispers. 

“I can usually survive well enough off of only three, but sometimes it’s two, depending on how the hunting process goes and if I have enough time before winter sets in hard enough to keep humans out of the woods.” Shane shudders, and Ryan knows it’s not from the cold. “It pains me to find two, let alone three. It pains me to find one.” 

Ryan’s heart hurts, looking at the anguished expression on Shane’s face. He looks exhausted and disgusted just thinking about having to hunt humans for the winter. It’s different than his off-handed explanations about being a wendigo and his inability to break out of the curse. It’s different because Shane was just telling Ryan about it before, but now it comes with a warning: the cure has to be found or never. 

It makes him blurt out: “I’ll redouble my efforts. Look harder than I have been.” 

“Ryan,” Shane says, so quietly that he almost doesn’t hear it, but Ryan presses forward. 

“If I put my head down and look as much as I can handle it, I can figure it out. I know I can, Shane. Curly and I--we’re so close to finding something useful. We’re so fucking close. If I just push myself a little more, I know we can figure it out before you have to--gather supplies.” 

“You can’t!” Shane goes fuzzy around the edges, but reels it in as quick as it comes. He takes a deep breath, and when his glamour resettles, gently takes both of Ryan’s hands in his. “Ryan, I know how much this means to you. You know how much I want this to be fixed. But if you push yourself any harder, you’re going to hurt yourself.” 

“I can take it, Shane--” 

“I know you can,” Shane says, squeezing his hands. This is when Ryan notices that Shane’s are trembling, along with the rest of his body, like he’s barely holding himself together. “But I can’t stand the thought of you putting yourself through so much grief on my behalf. I won’t let you do it.” 

Ryan bites down on his lip as hard as he can stand it to keep it from quivering. “I just need a little more time. We’re so close, Shane. Curly thinks that we might have the foundation for the undoing ritual, and we just need to work out all of the details.” 

Shane looks at him for a long, long moment without speaking. When he blinks again, a pair of tears slip from his amber eyes, and he reaches up to cup Ryan’s face with one of his shaking hands. Ryan looks back just intensely, trying to make Shane understand how much he needs to do this, how much they both need to see it through. 

“I don’t have much time left, sweetheart.” The term of endearment breaks something in him, and Ryan lets out an abrupt sob, pushing his cheek into Shane’s cold palm. Shane soothes a thumb over it. “I don’t think I have much left to hope for. I’ve been this way for a hundred years, and I don’t think that even you can change that, no matter how badly you or I want it. I told you--all I’ve got left is this curse and these hungry bones.” 

“Please don’t give up now,” Ryan whispers, clenching his hands around Shane’s like it’ll make him stay. “We can’t give up hope now, Shane. We’re so close.” 

“But we’re not there.” Shane’s wide, sad eyes move across Ryan’s face in a very telling manner. “The gap between knowing and almost knowing is too wide, Ryan. I’m not going to let you kill yourself trying to make up all that distance.” 

“You’re not ‘letting me’ do anything, Shane. I’m doing this because I want to. I have to do this.” 

More tears fall from Shane’s eyes and his entire face scrunches up in an effort to hold the rest back. He caresses Ryan’s face again, so gently and sweetly that is punches the breath out of his aching lungs.

“And I have to do this.” Shane tells him, so fragile that Ryan is surprised the words don’t shatter between them. “I have to keep you safe.” 

“Please don’t,” Ryan says; he’s trying to think of the words to make Shane stay, but his head is blank of anything except the feeling of Shane’s hands on him. “Please--”  

“Thank you for doing this for me,” Shane says, “For trying to help. But you’ve done enough. You’ve done so much for me, Ryan. More than I deserve.” 

He leans down and presses a kiss to Ryan’s forehead, much like the one he gave Ryan a few weeks ago, before Tania and before Curly. But where that one was comforting, tender, this one feels bitter and hot like the tears streaking down both of their cheeks. It feels like a goodbye, like a door permanently closing. 

Before Ryan can do anything in response, like beg Shane to stay or yank him down to kiss him deeply on his trembling mouth, Shane is pulling away, slipping through Ryan’s fingers like smoke. 

“Thank you for everything.” Shane tells him, and then he’s gone. All Ryan sees is his long, long body slipping into the trees, and then there’s nothing. 

“Shane!” he yells, and then falls forward onto his knees. The snow seeps through his pants immediately, like being thrown into a bath of ice. “Shane, please!” 

Shane doesn’t come back out of the trees, and the only response he receives is the wind whistling through all of the frozen, bare branches. Ryan hangs his head and lets himself cry, half out of desperation and half out of pure anguish. He cries and cries, kneeling in the snow, heart like splintered glass in his chest. He thinks Don’t take him away from me, and then thinks Why give him to me at all if I couldn’t have him forever? When the bitter sadness and rage peaks, he thinks You already took Eli away from me, you’re not allowed to take Shane, too. 

When Ryan can take a deep breath again, he does, and then he struggles to his feet. His entire body feels numb, between the snow and the despair, but he forces himself to move towards the entrance of the forest. Before he leaves, he turns to look back at the line of trees where he knows Shane lurks sometimes, even if he pretends to stay far within the woods, and tells anything listening: 

“I’m not giving up. I’m not ever going to give up on you.” 

And then he trudges home, feeling sick but determined in a way that not even the finality in Shane’s words can extinguish. 

~.~.~  

Shane doesn’t meet him the next morning, or the morning after that, or the morning after that. The longest Ryan has ever had to wait is five minutes, but when five minutes come and go and stretch in ten, twenty, thirty, Ryan knows what Shane is trying to do, and it hurts more than he thought it would. 

“We only have so much time left, you impossible son of a bitch.” Ryan says to no one, gritting his teeth. “Why waste it trying to make me stay away? I told you I’m not going to stop until I can’t go anymore.” 

He doesn’t meet Ryan for the whole week, even though Ryan never skips a day and sits in their spot for an hour before work, just like always. Ryan spends that time thinking about everything or nothing, depending on how heavy his heart is without Shane’s presence at his side. 

Saturday night of that week, Ryan stays up until the early hours of the morning on Skype with Curly, researching and brainstorming. He’d told Sloane about his supposed ‘script research’ and she, just like his coworkers, had accepted it easily. So she leaves it to him, since he and Curly are pretty quiet and Ryan always sits down in the kitchen so that he won’t be disturbing Sloane. 

It’s been six days since he last spoke to Shane, and tonight it’s taking more of a toll on him than previous days. On top of being frustrated at not being able to find a curse reversing ritual, he’s pissed off and sad about Shane’s attempt to get Ryan to forget about him. 

Curly notices, even though Ryan’s been playing it as cool as he can the whole week. 

“What’s wrong, sugar?” 

Ryan looks at the webcam, confused. “What do you mean?” 

“I mean this in the nicest way possible, but you look terrible, Ryan.” 

Ryan closes his eyes and lets out a breath, knowing that he can’t lie to the only person who knows everything about him besides Shane. 

“I haven’t seen him in almost a week,” Ryan confesses, no louder than a whisper. His voice breaks halfway through the confession, and he finally feels the tendrils of hopelessness he’s been staving off becoming exposed. “He told me… He explained that he needed to start gathering food for winter hibernation, and I told him that we were close to figuring out how to save him, and that we just needed some more time. And he told me that he really appreciated us trying to help him, but he was worried that I would push myself too far, and--I think he told me goodbye. He thanked me for trying to help me and then he just… disappeared, and I haven’t seen him since.” 

“Oh, honey,” Curly says, and on anyone else it would sound condescending, but on him it sounded genuinely empathetic. Like Ryan’s mom after he broke up with his first boyfriend, or after he had his first panic attack and couldn’t stop crying. “He didn’t do it to upset you, you know? I think he thinks it will help you to move on from him. I know that it hurts when we’re getting so close to figuring it out and he’s getting so close to having to pull away completely, but you have to know he didn’t do it to hurt you. If I can only be right about one thing here, it’s that Shane loves you, okay?” 

Ryan nods, and then the tears come, like clockwork. He presses his eyes into one upturned hand, trying to muffle the sound of his whimpering so that it won’t wake Sloane up. 

“It hurts so much,” Ryan whispers. “It’s only been a few days, Curly. I can’t survive a lifetime of this.” 

Curly makes a pained noise, and when Ryan glances at the screen, he has a hand pressed close to the camera like it’s going to land on Ryan’s shoulder. Ryan puts his hand over the shoulder that Curly would be touching if he were here, and Curly smiles sadly. 

“You are so much stronger than you give yourself credit for, Ryan. You went through the pain of breaking up with someone you’ve loved since childhood, and transitioning from young adulthood to full adulthood all at the same time. You’ve dealt with losing loved ones and loved times before. You can do it again, honey, I promise. If we can’t figure out this curse, I know it’s going to hurt you. It’s going to hurt like hell, the worst pain you’ve ever felt in your entire life. But I know you can make it through.” 

“I don’t think so,” Ryan confesses, taking a shuddering breath. “With Eli, it was a sense of comfort, since I’d known him all my life. He was my best friend before he was my boyfriend. We knew each other like the backs of our hands. But with Shane…” 

Ryan sobs again and Curly lets him have a moment, never taking his hand away from his webcam. Ryan wants to be close to him so badly that it cuts through the white hot pain of the Shane-sized gap in his ribs. 

“With Shane, it was like finding everything I never knew I needed,” Ryan continues, knowing the words to be true, even if he never let himself examine them quite so rawly before. “Even after he tried to kill me, it was like finding a piece of myself I didn’t know I was missing. He’s my soulmate, Curly. I know that sounds really high school, but it’s true. He fits into all of my jagged, broken pieces, the same as I fit into his. With Eli, it was about trusting him and losing that trust. With Shane, it’s--it’s showing each other all of the ghosts lurking in our skin and bones and guts and finding a way to accept each other, despite those ghosts.” 

When Curly doesn’t say anything to that, Ryan grins, something that looks terrible and broken open even in the poor resolution of their laptops. 

“I loved Eli because he was easy to love, and I knew I loved him before I knew just about anything else. But I love Shane because he showed me that love can save you from anything, from being lost, from being lonely, from dying, from living. Eli loved me because he always knew me like he knew himself, but Shane loves me because he learned that, underneath my human body and his wendigo body, we’re the same.” 

Curly’s face looks wide and pale from Ryan’s spew of words. Ryan feels hollowed out after having said it all, and he presses his face back into his hand, trying not to spiral into a full-blown breakdown. 

“I can’t let it go, Curly. I can’t give him up. He’s a piece of me now, wendigo or no.” 

Curly makes a sharp noise and then frantically begins rifling through his notes, muttering rapid Spanish under his breath. Ryan thinks that it’s Curly trying to pick a place for them to start at again in light of Ryan’s heartfelt confession, but then Curly exclaims something that he’s only heard his dad yell before in a fit of angry surprise, and says: 

“Babe, I got it.” 

Ryan pulls his face out of his hand, blinking at the screen. “What?” 

Curly laughs, half in amazement and half in disbelief. “Fuck, I’m so dumb. I didn’t even think about it until just now—” 

“Think about what, Curly?” Ryan asks, trying to keep his heart from climbing up out of his stomach. 

Curly mutters some more words and then stops on a specific page in his journal. He yells the Spanish curse word again and holds the journal up for Ryan to see. In the corner of the page is a massive red heart drawn in marker. 

“The thing that’s gonna undo this whole mess. Wendigos become wendigos one of two ways, remember? By becoming cannibals in their human lives, or being so hungry for something that they let it control them and a wendigo takes that human hunger and turns it into wendigo hunger.” 

Ryan holds his breath. 

“So maybe what you need to do is give Shane what he was hungry enough for to draw the wendigos to him.” 

“You mean--?” 

“Ryan,” Curly interrupts, softly. “You love him, don’t you?” 

“Of course,” he says immediately, eyes filling again. “More than I can put into words.” 

“Did you tell him that? Did you tell him that you love him?” 

“I--” Ryan has thought it a million times since meeting Shane, has made it incredibly clear that his entire heart belongs to that stupid, stubborn wendigo. But, then again, maybe he hasn’t. “I thought I did.” 

“Did you say ‘I love you’ to him directly?” 

Ryan stares at Curly through the camera, entire face the shape of an O.

“Are you serious?” he asks, soft enough that he’s not even sure Curly heard it. 

Curly laughs, and it sounds a little wet. “Maybe what he needs to break this curse is what all princesses need to break their curses--true love’s first kiss.” 

Ryan opens and closes his mouth a few times. He can’t believe it, for a long moment. That all it could take is Ryan telling Shane that he loves him, that he can’t bear the thought of living without Shane right next to him. He can’t believe that it could all be so complicated and so, so goddamn simple. 

“Holy fuck,” Ryan chokes out. “I’m such an idiot.” 

Curly’s definitely wiping some tears off of his face. “No you’re not, honey. We just forgot that love cures all.” 

“I told him that once, after he saved me from another wendigo.” He thinks about it, about Shane flinging himself onto the other wendigo without hesitation, about Shane taking him to his safe space to clean up his wounds, about Shane screaming at him and about Shane falling to his knees when Ryan said: “You belong to me.” 

“That he was an idiot?” 

“No,” Ryan laughs, strangled. “That love can fix anything in the world.” 

“Well, it’s going to work this time, too. I know it.” Curly taps the camera lense, like he’s kissing Ryan’s cheek. “If love can fix anything, it’s this curse on someone who never deserved it.” 

Ryan stays on Skype with Curly until daylight, when he knows it’ll be safe to go into the forest again. Curly talks to him about what Ryan will do after Shane turns back, after the curse is removed and Shane becomes human again. He doesn’t talk about what will happen if Shane’s body progresses to his real age and he becomes nothing but a pile of bones, and he doesn’t talk about what will happen if they’re wrong. 

When the barest, palest stream of light pushes through the dark clouds, Ryan gets up from the kitchen table, heart racing in his chest. 

“Go save your man,” Curly tells him. “And call me when you get back so I know you’re both okay.” 

“I will!” Ryan says breathlessly, and then says, “Thank you for everything, Curly. I owe you my life.” 

Curly grins sweetly and replies with a simple: “You don’t owe me a single thing, honey.” and signs off, leaving Ryan staring at the Skype homepage. 

Ryan pulls his winter clothes and shoes on as fast as he can manage without making a bunch of noise and then he goes tearing out of the back door and towards the woods. He feels like he might start having a panic attack if he doesn’t calm down, but he also feels steady and strong in a way he hasn’t felt in weeks. He doesn’t know if this is how he’s going to save Shane, but he does know that he’s not going to let Shane go until he knows just how much Ryan loves him. 

When he reaches their spot, Ryan barely pauses to catch his breath before he’s yelling: “Shane! Shane! I figured it out!” into the still, quiet forest. He pants and looks through the line of trees, trying to see if Shane is lurking around and about to slip out from them. When he doesn’t appear after a handful of minutes, Ryan yells his name again. “Shane Madej! I’m here to save you!” 

Other than Ryan’s harsh breathing and yelling, the woods remain still. He waits and waits for Shane to appear, but he never does. 

When he can’t stand it any longer, Ryan swears and heads farther into the woods, ignoring all of the warnings telling him to stay back and the memories of being attacked by a wendigo who wasn’t Shane. He stumbles through the snow and keeps looking around for Shane’s long, thin body. 

“I know you know I’m here,” Ryan says loudly, keeping his voice steady. “I know that you can hear me, Shane. I’m not leaving until you come out. I don’t care if it takes all day or all week.”

Ryan walks and walks, keeping his pulse under control as best as he can and keeping his head high. He walks like he’s going to find his death at the end of the trail, walks like he’s going to the end of the Earth and is prepared to come out worse than he went in, if he comes out at all. 

He stops when he reaches the river, now frozen. It looks beautiful in the morning sun, snow like a swatch of glitter over the smooth, glassy ice. The entire forest looks beautiful, a wonderland of white snow with gold and silver flecks hidden inside of it. It looks like a dream world, and feels like a tomb just underneath the canvas of diamonds and frost. 

Ryan takes a deep breath and doesn’t turn around when he calls out: 

“This is as far as I can go. I’m not going to leave this spot until you come and talk to me, Shane. I’ll sit here and starve if I have to.”  

Ryan stands there for a long time, looking out across the blinding whiteness of the woods. He clenches his hands where they’re shoved into his jacket and then clenches his jaw, stance ready for a fight. He doesn’t know if the fight is going to be physical or emotional, but he knows there’s going to be one regardless. He wants to be ready for both, because the alternative of walking out of the woods without even a fight makes him want to break down again. 

The sun is brighter and higher by the time he hears it: a twig snapping in the distance. His heart stumbles in his chest, and in between the anger, desperation, and love fighting each other inside of him, he thinks that it’s rather fitting that they’re going to have their final stand-off in the same place that they had their first stand-off after Shane tried to kill him. 

Ryan waits until he hears a soft footstep creep out from behind the trees, and then he turns around, chin still jutted out. 

Shane looks worse than usual; Ryan is used to how sickly he always looks from the nature of a wendigo, but Shane looks like he’s going to cave in on himself. His eyes look wild and haunted, closer to the monster underneath his surface than the man he glamours himself to be. His skin is thin over his sharpened bones, and his lips look cracked and chewed up. Despite it all, despite the way he looks like one giant sore and the reason he looks that way, Ryan thinks that Shane is the most beautiful being he’s ever seen in his entire life. 

“What are you doing out here?” Shane asks him; his tone suggests that he wants to sound angry and menacing, but it comes out hoarse and broken. “I thought I made it clear that you shouldn’t come here anymore.” 

Ryan steps closer, ignoring the way the words are supposed to hurt him. “I came to get you out of here.” 

The words make Shane flinch, and he wraps a hand around a lone tree branch, like it’s the only thing that’s going to keep him on his feet. 

“No, you’re not.” Shane says, eyes squeezed shut. “You can’t get me out of this, Ryan. I already told you--I’m stuck with this curse forever. There’s no way to undo it.” 

“Yes there is.” Ryan insists, now close enough to touch him. “I figured it out, Shane. Curly and I finally figured it out, just like I promised you we would.” 

Shane cracks his eyes open and looks down at him. He looks so fragile, and Ryan wants more than anything to reach and hold all of his pieces together, but he isn’t sure that his touch won’t break him apart. Shane is the one who ends up reaching out, after a visual debate with himself. He pries his hand off of the branch and brings both up to cup Ryan’s face. Ryan has missed his touch so much, hasn’t felt the smooth, cold feel of his fingers in so, so long that feeling them now makes his eyes prickle with tears.

“Ryan, I’m so thankful for everything that you’ve done for me,” Shane says, voice cracking. “I can't thank you enough for what you’ve done. You’ve shown me so much happiness and kindness, even when I don’t deserve it and am not ever going to deserve it. You’ve given me so many wonderful memories to cherish, for however long I’ll be cursed to be a wendigo.” 

“Don’t you listen when I talk?” Ryan asks, reaching up to grab Shane’s hands with his own. “I told you that you deserve all of that, Shane. You deserve happiness and kindness. You deserve it all.” 

Shane shakes his head. “I don’t. I promise you that I don’t. I tried to kill you, and you walked right back out here and showed me compassion. You’re the one who deserves happiness and kindness, not me. After everything you’ve been through and everything you’ve done for me, you deserve to find happiness.” 

“I have!” Ryan insists. He’s trying not to let his mission slip from his mind, but it’s hard when all he can think about is making Shane see that he’s worthy of love. “You’ve brought me so much happiness, ever since I came out here. You’ve shown me happiness like no one else has before.” 

A sob claws its way out of Shane’s throat, all points and edges. “I’m never going to bring you happiness like you deserve, Ryan. Whatever I’ve given you these past few months is nothing compared to what someone else can give you. I’m always going to be a wendigo, no matter what. I’m always going to know what it’s like to be greedy, and starving, and looking for something I’m never going to find. But you don’t have to be cursed to live like this. You can go back to living your normal, amazing life like you’re supposed to.” 

“Fuck, Shane, you’re still not getting it!” Ryan digs a hand into Shane’s chest, knuckles right up against his unbeating heart. “I don’t want to go back to my normal life! I don’t want to go anywhere without you! I don’t want to live the rest of my life without you in it, right next to me!” 

Shane sobs again, so raw and so heartbroken that it makes Ryan’s tears bubble up hot and fast. “I’m so sorry that I can’t give that to you, Ry. I want to more than anything else in the world. I’d give up anything to spend the rest of my life with you.” 

“But you can, I promise!” Ryan cries, moving to clench both hands in the front of Shane’s shirt. “I figured out how to get you out of this endless cycle of hunting and starving. If you’d just let me help you, you could stay with me.” 

Shane brushes his thumbs over Ryan’s cheeks, but the sweet gesture is belied by his words: “There’s just no way. There’s no way to break this curse.” 

“Yes there is.” Ryan tells him, so earnest and furious that it finally makes Shane pause. “There’s a way to do it, Shane.” 

“How?” he croaks, trembling all over and ready to fall apart at any second. 

And Ryan finds it as easy as breathing to reach up and hold Shane’s face in between his own trembling hands and tell him, without a single ounce of hesitation: 

“Through love.” 

Shane chokes a little, but doesn’t move to say anything. Ryan’s not sure that he can. It pushes him to move forward, now that Shane looks like all he can do is listen without fighting. 

“You told me that love is what put you here, remember?” Ryan asks, pressing his thumbs into Shane’s gaunt cheeks. “Your consuming, ceaseless desire to find love, and to be loved in return. That you were so hungry for it, that you were starving so badly for it, a wendigo in these woods took that greed and made you unable to find relief from it.” 

Shane says nothing; he looks like he can’t believe a word Ryan is saying, like he doesn’t want to believe where they’re taking him. He looks a lot like how Ryan felt hearing Curly lay it all out for him. 

“And remember how I told you that love might be the way to save you from this curse, despite it putting you here in the first place?” When Shane nods, a quick jerk of his chin, Ryan smiles through his tears and says: “As it turns out, I was right. Love is going to save you, just as much as it damned you.” 

“Ryan--” Shane chokes out, but can’t say anything else. His hold on Ryan has tightened almost unbearably. 

“The love I have for you is overwhelming,” Ryan tells him, throat tight with emotion. “It takes my breath away. It’s all-consuming, and wonderful, and unquestionable. Every time that I see you, my love for you grows, and every time that I leave you, my whole body aches to be next to yours again. I’ve never loved someone as wholly and relentlessly as you. I didn’t know it was possible to feel this way about someone, until you tried to take away my life and ended up giving it back to me in so many ways.” 

Shane sobs openly, back bowing under the strain of it. Ryan keeps his gaze steady, through all of his own tears and the painful lump in every part of his body. He doesn’t let go of Shane, and he doesn’t let him look away. 

“That’s what’s going to break this curse,” Ryan says vehemently. “What you’ve been roaming the Earth to find for decades. My fierce, powerful, unconditional love for you. All of you.” 

Shane’s breath stutters, and his fingers press into Ryan’s skin like he wants to crawl right inside. Ryan pulls Shane down until all they can see is each other, and he tells him, voice steady and skin on fire: 

“I love you, Shane Madej.” 

As soon as the words escape him, Shane makes a noise like a wounded animal and crushes their mouths together. Ryan surges up, kissing him back just as desperately, and winds his arms around Shane’s bony, hunched shoulders. They push and push until every part of their bodies are touching from head to toe and Ryan doesn’t know where his begins and Shane’s ends. The aching, livewire love Ryan has for Shane fills him up and leaks out into their wild kissing, and Shane groans like he can physically feel it. He touches Ryan like he still can’t believe he’s real, that Ryan is really here with him, and Ryan touches Shane like if he pulls away even an inch that Shane will evaporate into thin air, will disappear into the trees for good. 

When Ryan finally pulls away, panting harshly, Shane leans down to kiss both of his cheeks and then leans away so that Ryan can see his beautiful, breathtaking, teary amber eyes, and tells him, voice quivering and touch still so, so tender: 

“I love you too, Ryan Bergara. You belong to me.” 

Ryan sobs, says, “You belong to me,” back, and then Shane starts to glow. 

It starts off subtle, so subtle that Ryan thinks that it’s just the early morning sun finally escaping the dark curtain of clouds. He’s too preoccupied with grinning wetly up at Shane to notice the light is emanating from within Shane’s body. Shane is too preoccupied with holding Ryan as close as he can and crying softly to notice, either. Neither of them are aware of it until Shane suddenly cries out and pushes both of his hands into his stomach. 

“Shane?” Ryan asks frantically. “What’s wrong?” 

“I--” Shane peels his hands away long enough to look behind them, and then he puts them back. When his eyes meet Ryan’s again, they’re wide and terrified. “God, I don’t know what’s happening to me.” 

He cries out again and falls to his knees, arms clenched around his stomach. Ryan can see the light peeking out from between Shane’s long fingers, bright and dazzling like sunrise on a fresh sheet of snow. He gets on his knees, too, and reaches out for Shane. 

“Don’t,” Shane grits, twisting away from Ryan’s hands. “It could hurt you--” 

“It’s hurting you!” Ryan replies shrilly. 

“It’s not--” Shane doubles over, forehead almost flush with the ground. “Goddammit, I think I’m--” 

Ryan watches helplessly as Shane’s entire body starts to illuminate, golden light travelling up to his shoulders and out over his arms and legs. Shane continues to cry out as the light consumes him, leaving no limb or inch of skin untouched, until his entire body is encased in an ethereal glow. The light surrounds him completely, pulsating for a few heartbeats, so bright that Ryan has to cover his eyes and look away. 

And just as suddenly as it comes, it goes. Ryan hears Shane cry out one final time, and then the bright golden light evaporates with a faint hiss. When Ryan uncovers his eyes, all he sees is Shane’s slumped form; he doesn’t move to get up. 

“Shane?” Ryan whispers, tentatively reaching his hand out. His hand is trembling so badly that he can barely believe it’s still attached to his arm. Ryan gently settles his shaking hand on Shane’s back, but he still doesn’t move. Ryan bites his lip and tries it again, his voice coming out with an edge to it. “Shane, please.” 

There’s nothing, and then Ryan feels Shane’s back expand underneath his palm. 

“Oh God,” Ryan sobs, fingers curling into his shirt. His brain finally registers the fact that Shane feels warm. “God, I almost had a heart attack.” 

Shane groans, forehead rolling in the snow. He manages to get his hands palm-down on the ground and pushes himself back into a sitting position, and when he meets Ryan’s gaze, Ryan chokes. 

He grew accustomed to Shane looking like he was always on the verge of death: skin pale and cold, eyes pretty but flat, and a distinct lack of inhaling and exhaling. But now he looks --alive. His skin has a healthy flush to it, his eyes are bright and attentive, and his chest rises and falls as his breathes. Ryan thought he was beautiful before, but now, now that he’s alive-- 

Ryan moves his shaking, fluttering hand from Shane’s shoulder up to his face. His skin almost burns him from how warm it is compared to Ryan’s cold fingers, and when Ryan runs his thumb over Shane’s lips, he feels the heat of his breath sliding all the way down to his wrist. 

“You--” Ryan tries, but can’t quite finish. “Shane.” 

Shane’s face cracks open in a million different ways. His eyes fill with hot, fat tears that immediately begin to spill; his mouth splits into a wide, gorgeous grin, so wide that Ryan can see all of his teeth and can barely see the amber in his wet eyes; his throat convulses as he begins to weep in earnest, like he doesn’t know whether to laugh or howl. 

He reaches up with his own pair of shaking, trembling hands, curls them around Ryan’s, and drags it down to his chest. Through the numbing cold and the fabric of Shane’s thin shirt, Ryan can feel his heart beating strong and steady, and it absolutely destroys him. 

“It fucking worked,” Ryan blubbers, and begins to weep, as well. “It fucking worked, baby.” 

Shane sobs harshly and engulfs Ryan in the long circle of his arms. Ryan clings back just as hard, one hand sliding into Shane’s hair, and the other remaining squished between them, right over Shane’s hammering heart. They hold each other while breaking down together, and even though they’re sitting right in the snow, Ryan can’t feel anything past the harsh, gasping breaths Shane heaves, the hotness of his tears from where Shane’s face is tucked against his neck, lips pressed to the column of Ryan’s throat.

Ryan doesn’t know how long they kneel on the forest floor together before Shane takes another deep, hungry breath and gasps out: 

“Thank you.” He pulls his face out of Ryan’s neck and cups his face again, hands warm and shaking and alive, alive, alive. “Thank you for everything, Ryan. You saved me.” 

Ryan whimpers, tears still coming in strong. He curls both of his hands into Shane’s hair and brings him close, until their foreheads are pressed together. 

“You saved me first,” he tells Shane, kissing him softly. 

Shane laughs, bright and strangled and so beautiful that Ryan can hardly stand it. “You can never stop one-upping me, huh, Bergara?” 

Ryan laughs in a very similar way, closes his eyes, overwhelmed by relief and love. “Not a chance, Shane Madej.” 

The tips of Shane’s fingers push into his own messy hair, tilting Ryan’s head closer. “How about we just accept we saved each other?” 

“We did,” Ryan says. “In so, so many ways, we did.” 

Shane kisses him sweetly, and Ryan kisses back, heart soaring. He can feel Shane’s chest rising and falling against his own, and the hard wall of his teeth from where he’s starting to smile too much to kiss right, and he never wants to feel anything else. 

“I love you,” Shane tells him, when he can’t contain his smile anymore. It stretches across his entire face again and knocks the breath out of Ryan’s lungs. “I love you so much. Thank you, thank you, thank you.” 

“I love you too,” Ryan says, pressing his lips into the corner of Shane’s stunning grin. “I’d save you over and over again, no matter what it took. I’d go to the ends of the Earth for you.” 

Shane gives him one last, amazed sob, and then they embrace tightly and don’t let go for a long, long time. Around them, everything comes to life, and when the sun has turned it all into a glittering jewel, the forest takes a deep breath, like it’s waking up for the first time in a century. 

~.~.~

Explaining how Shane came to be takes the entire afternoon, but Ryan does it, and Sloane takes it surprisingly well. 

“So,” she says slowly, looking at Ryan carefully from across the table. “You have a boyfriend now. And he used to be a wendigo, but you kissed him and now he’s not? Because you and your friend Curly figured out how to reverse the curse? And you want him to live with us.” 

Ryan winces. “That’s, uh, a pretty good summary. I’m impressed.” 

Sloane raises her eyebrows and looks at him for a long, calculating moment. Ryan swallows and looks back, mind racing with alternatives in case Sloane says no, or calls his mom in a panic. But then her face smoothes out and she nods. 

“I’m not saying that I’ve ever come across a wendigo, but I know they exist. It’s hard to live in St. Ignace your whole life and not hear about them, or hear them. So I don’t think you’re crazy.” Ryan breathes out deeply, relief filling him up like hot water in a tub. “I’m also not surprised that, in correlation with wendigos existing, that you found a way to, uh, unmake one through the power of love, or whatever happened. I think what I’m trying to say is--congrats?” 

Ryan has never heard Sloane sound so unsure of herself, and it makes his skin prickle. 

She must see it on his face, and she huffs, smiling. “Shut up, Bergara, I’m trying here. I’ve never dealt with something like this before.” 

“What? Star-crossed lovers?” 

Sloane snorts. “Try having my cousin and his supernatural boyfriend shack up with me.” 

“Hey, if you don’t want him to stay with me, I completely understand. I can find somewhere else to--” 

“Stop.” Sloane makes the shut-your-mouth-and-let-me-finish gesture with her hand. “I didn’t say that, did I? I was just trying to make sure I got the gist of your epic romance odyssey.” 

Ryan laughs, grinning bashfully. 

“Exactly,” Sloane says, grinning back. “Well. As long as he’s not going to suddenly revert into a cannibalistic beast in the middle of the night and eat both of us and the entire neighborhood, then I’m okay with him staying with us until you head back to California.” 

Ryan’s grin softens into an awed smile. “Really?” 

“Of course, Ryan. He obviously means the world to you.” Sloane takes both his hands in hers, squeezing them. Her voice drops down to almost a whisper, like the heaviness of talking about their feelings will be lessened along with the volume. “When you get here, you were so different from yourself. It was like living with a ghost. I hardly recognized you. You were the highlight of the Bergara/Kojima clan get-togethers, and then suddenly it was like your entire personality got erased and all that was left was your body.” 

Ryan squeezes her hands. “I know. I’m sorry.” 

“I’m sorry,” Sloane says. “I’m so sorry you had to go through Eli cheating on you, and feeling like you couldn’t move forward with all of your friends, or even Jake. You’re going to change the world someday, and I’m sorry you felt like you didn’t even belong in it just a few months ago.” 

Ryan’s eyes sting with tears, and this time, he doesn’t try to fight them. He’s so exhausted from relief and fighting for Shane’s life that he doesn’t have the energy to pretend like he’s not still raw like an open wound. 

Sloane smiles again, her own eyes a little shiny. “But in October, it was like you finally woke up again. You were laughing more, and smiling when no one was looking, and spending more time outside of the house. I get now that it’s because you were with this Shane guy, and even though he was a literal supernatural creature, he still helped you put the pieces back together. So, he’s a friend in my book. He’s welcome here forever and always.” 

Ryan goes around to the other side of the table and wraps Sloane up in his arms. She hugs him tightly, one arm across his shaking shoulders and the other one curled protectively over his head. Ryan loves her more than he can bear at the best of times, but he knows that Sloane had just as much of a hand in helping him move on as Shane did, and he needs her to know that. 

“You’ve done so much for me, dude,” Ryan whispers into her hair. “You saved my life, Sloane, just as much as he did. Even when I was a complete mess, I knew that no matter what, you’d be there to keep me afloat. I never doubted that for a goddamn second. I owe everything to you.” 

Sloane makes a funny noise and kisses Ryan on the cheek, pulling him closer. 

“I love you so much, Ryan.” she tells him, sniffling. “I’m so glad that you found someone that makes you so happy. And I’m glad he found you, too.” 

Ryan pulls away from her enough to look down into her warm, familiar brown eyes and he grins. “I love you too. So, so much.”

Sloane laughs and untangles their arms so that she can dry her face off. Ryan does the same, and when they’re mostly put together again, Sloane clears her throat and reverts back into her normal, no-nonsense self. 

“Well, are you going to introduce me to the love of your life or what, Bergara? I’m not living with a stranger, I can tell you that.” 

Ryan heads outside, where Shane has been sitting on the back steps and staring out towards the woods. He looks up when Ryan opens the door, and then at Ryan’s hand when he holds it out. 

“She wants to meet you,” Ryan tells him, and his grin is so wide that it’s hurting his face. “You know, just to make sure that you’re not a weirdo.” 

“Hilarious.” Shane says dryly, but takes his hand and gets up. He steps close to Ryan and rests their foreheads together, breathing in deeply. “Is she really okay with me staying here?” 

Ryan softens. “Shane. She knows what you went through, and she’s not going to let you tough it out alone. And neither am I, for that matter. She’s more than okay with you staying with us until we figure out what to do.” 

“We?” Shane whispers, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. “You planning on keeping me around?” 

“Of course, baby,” Ryan says it like a joke, but the way his hold tightens on Shane tells the truth behind his words. “Come hell or high water.” 

Shane laughs and kisses him softly. “All right. Let’s get this show on the road.” 

Ryan takes Shane inside and to where Sloane is still sitting at the kitchen table, drinking some coffee. She looks up when they come out from the mudroom, and a smile passes over her face almost immediately. 

“You must be the infamous Shane Alexander Madej.” she says, standing up. Sloane is only a few inches shorter than Ryan and is deceptively ripped, but next to Shane’s tall, looming figure, she looks like a tween, coming up only to the middle of his chest. 

“That’s me,” Shane replies, holding out a hand. “I’m sure you’ve, uh, heard all about me.” 

“Of course.” Sloane looks him up and down for a moment, and then takes his hand, shaking it firmly. “Did you know that about a month ago, I caught him singing Taylor Swift songs? I think he was singing them about you, and I cannot thank you enough for that opportunity.” 

“Who’s Taylor Swift?” Shane asks, extremely confused. 

Ryan groans. “It’s not important. Please ignore her.” 

Sloane presses on, grinning evilly. “She writes a lot of stupid, gaudy romance songs. They’re truly abysmal, but apparently Ryan here knows a lot of them.” When Shane laughs, Sloane’s grin softens into a grateful smile. “And did you know that you brought him back to me?” 

Shane sobers immediately, eyes going wide and amazed. “What?” 

Sloane folds her hands over his one and squeezes it gently. “Before you and Ryan started seeing each other, so to speak, he was really broken. Lost, exhausted, lonely. He was in really bad shape. But you helped him to get through that, and you brought back the kid I’ve known since I was a kid. So, thank you.” 

There’s a beat of shocked silence, and then Shane hugs Sloane tightly, his hulking form covering hers almost entirely. Sloane sends Ryan a surprised look over Shane’s shoulder, but hugs him back. 

“He saved my life,” Shane tells her. “You don’t even know how many ways he saved me. I almost killed him the first time I met him, but once he showed me I could save him, too, I did it without a second thought. I love him with everything I’ve got left.” 

Sloane smiles and cups a hand around the back of his head, embracing him the way she always embraces Ryan. “I’m glad you found each other.” 

“Me too,” Shane whispers, and Ryan watches as they hold each other for another long, warm moment. Seeing both of his worlds coming together and molding into each other settles something in chest that he didn’t know was still rattling around. He finally feels like, no matter what, it’s going to be okay, and he can still live his life without the love of it missing from his side. 

They eventually pull apart from each other, and Sloane gives him one last squeeze. 

“Welcome home,” she tells him, and Ryan and Shane both beam. 

~.~.~

After both of them have eaten, showered, and Ryan has called Curly, they crawl into Ryan’s bed together, completely exhausted. Dinner had been an event; the only thing Shane had eaten for the last hundred years was human flesh, bone, and blood, and he was afraid that he wouldn’t be able to eat anything else even after his transformation. But he’d taken one bite of the simple chili dinner Sloane had made for them all and burst into tears, stuttering out that he tasted all of it, and not even a hint of blood. He’d cried for the entire meal, periodically apologizing and thanking Sloane for her kindness and the food. 

The shower had gone much the same way, but except for crying, Shane had groaned and moaned as soon as he’d gotten under the hot spray, telling Ryan he hadn’t felt hot water long before becoming a wendigo. When Ryan introduced him to the wonders of scented shampoo and body wash, Shane had spent an inordinate amount of time smelling himself and Ryan while Ryan washed them both up. This resulted in Shane sniffing Ryan’s neck loudly and relentlessly and Ryan laughing so hard he almost slipped on the wet shower floor. The end result was both of them being heat-flushed and giggly in sweatpants and sweatshirts and thick socks, and Shane looked so soft and human that it put a lump in Ryan’s throat. 

Shane sighs when he climbs into Ryan’s bed, head sinking deeply into one of his pillows. He draws the comforter up to his chin, a serene smile spreading across his face. 

“Our beds were never this comfortable,” Shane tells him, eyes closed. “Functional at best. This feels like I’m laying on a cloud.” His eyes flutter open, and his beauty makes Ryan stop and stare. He admits, voice breathy and sleepy, “I feel so safe right now.” 

Ryan smiles and gets in next to him, slipping under the covers. Their legs tangle together almost immediately, and Ryan moves until he can push a hand into Shane’s damp, clean hair. 

“Wearing long clothes and getting under the covers is the best feeling in the world. It’s like nothing can hurt you.” 

Shane laughs, drawing Ryan closer. “That’s not what I meant, sweetheart.” 

Ryan’s breath hitches, and he lets Shane pull him into a soft, sweet kiss. He keeps one hand in Shane’s hair and the other falls automatically to Shane’s chest, fingers splayed to feel for his heartbeat. Ryan doesn’t think that he’ll ever be able to get used to this, get used to having Shane so close to him and as a living, breathing human being. Used to not having to hope that Shane might be able to stay with him, regardless of the wendigo curse and Ryan’s own impending return to the real world. 

When Shane pulls away, Ryan presses another soft, sweet kiss to his forehead and curls around Shane as close as he can. Shane sighs again and buries his face into Ryan’s chest, pushing both hands underneath Ryan’s sweatshirt to rest on the bare skin of his back. He notices, after a few quiet moments, that Shane’s ear is pressed over his heart, much the same way Ryan’s hand is still pressed over Shane’s. 

He strokes his thumb over Shane’s chest and tells him: 

“I’m not sure what to do next, but we’re going to figure it out together, okay? Whether that means you coming back to California with me, or us staying here until we’re old and crotchety and hanging onto life by our dentures, we’ll do it together. No matter what we choose or what anyone else says. I promise you.” 

Shane nods, hold on Ryan’s waist tightening. “Okay. I trust you.” 

Ryan’s eyes flutter shut. Hearing those words, after everything they’ve been through separately and together, steals the air out of his lungs. Almost as much as-- 

“I love you.” 

Ryan smiles against the crown of Shane’s head, eyes wet but heart soaring. He thinks Thank you for letting me hold onto him, and then thinks Thank you for giving us a home. 

Out loud, he says: “I love you too.” 

They drift off together, curled up like a pair of entangled vines. Ryan falls asleep to the feeling of Shane’s steady breathing against his skin and Shane’s steady heartbeat against the palm of his hand, like a lighthouse shining on a dark, foggy shore. Ryan falls asleep knowing that he would do anything to keep this man by his side, and that his love for Shane could bring down entire universes, let alone a wendigo’s curse. Ryan falls asleep knowing that, despite whatever will come next and whatever will happen when they start to put their lives back together, Shane belongs to him, and he belongs to Shane, and nothing is ever going to matter more than that. 

They saved each other’s lives, and now they get to begin them again together, too.