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Scales of the (un)fortunate

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Keith looks around himself. The tavern is bristling with life, the smell of impending battle and starving desperation. The men around him are poor but burdened with what they feel is a righteous purpose.

There is a light in their eyes, hungry for violence, for a solution where none is to be found. They don't know what to do, powerless in front of the destruction that awaits their village, and they are grasping at straws to salvage what they can.

Ever since the volcano on the other side of the village has started awakening the village has been consumed by a feverish fear. Not even the angriest mob can take down a mountain and, for a while, everything had seemed lost.

Families had started evacuating the village, fleeing to where it would be safe, and then it had appeared.

It had been a shadow over their already almost deserted village, but everyone had recognized the sight immediately. Everyone had looked up at the black dragon with the white wing and shuddered at the sight.

Keith had never actually believed the voices, rumors of people just as desperate and angry as the ones he's looking at now. That dragon brings only disasters in its wake they said, their eyes haunted by memories. If you see it it's already too late for you.

But what if the dragon appears before tragedy strikes? What if one is able to stop the impending doom before it arrives?

That's what they are discussing today. A plan to kill the dragon before the volcano erupts and destroys their whole village.

Keith isn't sure about the plan or the idea. The dragon, for what he knows, has never actually attacked anyone. It's not with his claws or his bite that he brings misery to whoever lays eyes on him; it seems like there is only a dark cloud that follows him. Whatever he touches ruins from its core, or so they say.

He doesn't spit fire, some say, but a cloud of dark magic that sucks the soul of whoever is in its path. And yet, every story Keith has heard about the dragon is about natural disasters or terrible wars.

It doesn't seem like the dragon instigates any of these occurrences, but that death merely follows him like a faithful companion. Maybe the beast is just Death’s messenger and there is nothing to be done about it.

Yet, no one wants to give up so easily.

If they kill the foul beast maybe they can stop the dreadful fate that awaits them. Maybe, if they act fast enough, they can even save the village.

Keith, from the end of the tavern, nurses his mead and simply listens. He's isolated from the angry mob that's planning in the center of the establishment. He doesn't want to be there, but even if he wanted to, he wouldn't be welcomed.

There has never been good blood between him and the rest of the village. Keith isn't sure what he has done to have the whole village hate him so, but it has been this way ever since he can remember. Once, his father had been the only bright light, but ever since his demise, Keith has been alone in a village that despises him almost as much as the foul beast they are planning to kill.

If this wasn't his home too, if he didn't care too much about the old house he and his father had lived in, he would leave and never look back.

"We'll attack at dawn when the first sunlight touches the hills," the village blacksmith snarls. The rest of the village echoes his cry of anger.

They seem more like beasts now, scared and lashing out at their only target. And yet, it's the only route they have. "We'll show death that we're not scared of her," someone else shouts, receiving enthusiastic cheers in returns.

What has fear turned them into, he wonders, watching them all. He then looks back at his lap, where his dagger lies and wonders what he has turned into.

It doesn't seem like the beast is really dangerous for anyone, and yet they won't hesitate to hunt it like one would a fox running in their farm. The beast might not be able to help its actions, but right now they don't seem much better.

"We'll need the help of all able hands," the blacksmith continues and Keith knows that everyone has turned to look at him.

They have shunned him for years and a part of him think that, if they could, they'd leave him out of this too. However, even their hatred of Keith has to take a step back in the face of this tragedy.

Keith nods, and everyone else just turns back towards whom they have elected as their leader.

Is this really the right choice? Are they doing the best thing going on this quest? Keith doesn't know, but they don't have the time to doubt.

He grasps the dagger in his hands and hopes that if they'll die, at least they will have no regrets.

 

 

Morning comes faster than other nights, or so it seems to him, and the first rays of the sun find them already awake, walking towards the edge of the eastern village border. There have been voices that the dragon has made his nest there, closer to the volcano and in the perfect spot to oversee the natural disaster in all its force.

If the voices are true, as they hope, then the dragon will be waiting for them just past the last hill. They will attack him with bows and spears, some mages that have lent their powers to a poor farmers’ village, and some, like Keith, who will advance on him to hopefully land a mortal blow.

The plan sounds simple, like all plans that are doomed to fail.

They don't know the true powers of the dragon, what is its strength or even its weakness. If someone had ever won against it, or at least faced it and lived to tell the tale, then they would maybe have some kind of advantage. But they have nothing but the strength of their fear and the knowledge that there wouldn't be a house to return to in case of defeat.

Keith is upfront, having detached himself from the main group half an hour ago. He's the first one to overcome the hill's top and look down below.

What he sees chills his blood.

The dragon is nested on the top of a rock not too far from where he is. He can see it clearly now, and he looks so different from up close. Up until now the beast, the dragon, had been a shadow in the sky, an entity that represents all of their fear and hopes. It had been a symbol to them, more than anything else, but Keith can see it now.

Its scales are a deep black, just as the legends attached to its name, but there are purple veins in them, rich and dark. It gives a shine to the dragon's appearance.

And then, of course, there's the wing. In the first morning light, it colors itself of orange and yellow, warm colors that should help soften the metallic hue, but in reality, they don’t help at all. Looking closely, the wing isn’t even completely silver as they say. Veins, as large a tree roots, irradiate from the dragon's wingtip and start to reach towards its torso almost as if they were bones, growing over its scales.

For a moment Keith actually believes that they are the dragon’s bones sticking out from under its skin, a macabre spectacle.

Death’s companion, he had thought the day before, and it seems eerily accurate now, watching him from up-close.

And then, then he looks past the dragon, at what the dragon is looking at. The volcano, invisible from the village, is covered in a thick cloud of smoke and from where Keith is standing, he can only see a faint shimmering along the mountain's side. It might be the light, but he knows that it's not.

They are too late.

He closes his eyes and looks behind, at the only men left in the village who are marching to save their homes. Can he really tell them that there is no hope left? Can he make them hate him even more?

But can he let them kill themselves fighting a beast they have no chance of defeating?

He squares his shoulder and goes on towards the dragon.

The beast doesn't even notice him. The mob would have gotten his attention in a moment, but a single man is quieter, and Keith has always been good at moving silently.

It also seems that the dragon is immersed in watching the disaster unfold. There is a tightness in the air that has nothing to do with the smell of fire and ash. The dragon's tail twists in the air like a whip, and Keith watches it with dread.

There is only one possibility now: he has to kill the dragon himself. If he delivers a blow when the beast doesn't expect him then he'll be able to put an end to this quickly and effectively. If he doesn't succeed, maybe the dragon will fly away and leave the rest of the village to its grim fate.

There is no certainty, of course, but what does he really have to lose? The lava will reach the village and the one thing Keith wants to protect, the house that holds his only good memories, will be lost.

Keith gets as close as he can to the rock and starts climbing it slowly. If the dragon wasn't as absorbed as it is, this would be more difficult. Instead, it seems like the beast can't even hear him. He reaches for his dagger, pulling it out of the sheat when the beast seems to sense him in some way.

The dragon turns its long neck and his enormous grey eyes stare right at Keith. A moment of stillness passes between them before Keith pushes forward in a moment of desperation. He knows there is no chance for him now, but he can't give up before he even tries.

Keith extracts his dagger and pushes it forward towards the dragon's hide. It's a desperate attempt and the beast's tail catches him before he can even get close. The strength of the hit sends Keith reeling, launching him across the clearance.

He hits the ground with a grunt of pain. He has to get up, he knows that, but even the smallest of movements hurts now.

The airs move around him, and when he opens his eyes, he sees the dragon's face is in front of him. The beast seems even larger now, its wings extended and its face so close to Keith's.

If the voices are true, Keith's soul is already forfeited. And while he hadn't believed the tales of old scared men, there is a light in the beast's eyes that unnerves him. A glint of something that resonates inside Keith's body, an intelligence that he hadn't expected.

Keith thinks there is sadness in there as well and for a moment he's struck by the need to extend his hand and touch. The dragon's scales look even darker up close and it almost takes Keith's breath away.

He will die soon, he knows, and he wonders what it would be like to actually touch the beast's skin. Feel the hard scales under his palm.

Yet, the dragon doesn't move. It doesn't attack Keith, doesn't even show its teeth. It just looks at him, as if Keith is a puzzle it's trying to figure out.

The dragon's muzzle comes even closer to Keith and it seems to sniff him, almost as if it was a dog. The entire situation is almost too bizarre for Keith to comprehend.

"What are you waiting for?" Keith asks, defiance in the face of death like he was in the face of the scorn of the village. "If you want to kill me you have to do it soon.”

The dragon's head moves but its eyes remain focused on Keith. It's almost surreal to see.

"You're cursed," someone says. The voice is grave, possessing a certain poise, and it takes entirely too much for Keith to realize that it was the dragon who had spoken.

The dragon talks?

"What?" he asks, unable to believe what's happening in front of him. The dragon raises one of its paws, bringing a claw to Keith's chest. He presses with a gentleness that seems out of place in a beast this big. Even though there is a claw bigger than Keith's entire face pressed on his chest, he almost doesn't feel it.

"You smell of sulfur and citric here," the dragon informs him, "there is the faint scent of love, too. A family curse, I think. I can't break it."

Keith blinks, too surprised to react. Should he really believe a beast he hadn't believed capable of actual thought, let alone conversation, mere minutes ago? And what does he mean with a curse?

Keith and his father had never been skilled in magic, their blood too normal to wield any arcane power. They had never even interacted with a mage, so how can Keith be cursed?

"I don't believe you," he hisses then. He has lost his dagger somewhere and he's completely defenseless now, not that he thought it would make a difference. "You're a harbinger of misfortune, and that's what you're trying to bring me."

There is a flash in the dragon's eyes, something gone too fast for Keith to decipher, and then the dragon's face inches even closer to Keith's.

"But you've been miserable your entire life, I can sense it on you," the dragon says, his voice almost a rumble. He looks like a cat that it's purring and Keith wonders what kind of creature enjoys the suffering of others this much. "You can put the blame on me if you want. But it's the curse residing in your chest the fault of it all."

"Show it to me then," Keith says, trying to push against the dragon's claw. To his surprise the paw lifts slightly, allowing him to start sitting up.

"I can't," the dragon snarls, a little bit of fire leaving its mouth, "I can't break the curse. It's too rooted inside you, I can't take it."

"Take it?" he asks out loud, but before the dragon can answer him they hear screams in the distance. Keith only has time to blink before an arrow flies over his head. The rest of the village advances from the edge of the clearance and they don't seem preoccupied with hitting Keith.

The dragon springs into action, roaring in the direction of the mob. His wings flap in front of him, creating a current that sends most of the normal men flying. The dragon moves as well then, and Keith has the strange impression that he's protecting Keith with his own body, shielding him.

Magic bolts hit the dragon's hide violently and while the beast recoils from them, it seems like they aren't enough to slow him down. He flaps his wings frantically, sending most of the other fighters flying. If it had been a mob composed of soldiers maybe they would have withstood the hit better, but there is nothing but poor villagers facing him now, and they all go down to the dragon's incessant wind.

They are going to die.

Keith looks around, looking for the dagger that had been flung from his hand. He sees it after a while, not too far from him, and he scrambles to it, picking it up quickly. He turns and he watches as most of the humans fall to the ground when the dragon swipes at them with his tail. He has withstood first handed the force behind the blow and he winces in sympathy.

It doesn't seem like the dragon is paying that much attention to him, so Keith holds the dagger firmly in his hand and strikes.

Whatever the dragon said, Keith still has to cling to some modicum of hope that maybe they can save their village. It might be impossible, but does he really have any other choice? A part of him thinks he does, but he shuts it down quickly in the heat of the moment.

To his immense surprise, he hits the dragon's paw, and he sees the beast recoil in pain. The dragon turns towards him, something feral in his eyes, and Keith readies himself to be hit again. Before he can, however, the beast's silver wing shines brightly against the sun and when the dragon brings it down the gust of wind that emanates from it it's different from the ones before.

Magic, Keith realizes, before he's flung backward again. The strength behind the wind is inhuman and soon the rest of the humans fall down as well.

When Keith tries to get up there is something forcing him down. He looks up, straining against the overwhelming force, and he sees the dragon taking flight.

He's running away, Keith realizes, and he's tempted to stop him.

There is nothing he can do, however, but watch him disappears in the distance while the volcano roars.

 

The village blames him.

While the last of the families finally evacuate the village, they all look at him like he's responsible for this in some way.

Keith doesn't understand why, but he stopped explaining himself and his action to them many years ago. He learned from a young age that nothing would have ever changed their mind about him, and he had given up on it a long time ago.

Now he watches them leave and he doesn't even try to follow them.

His place is not in whatever village they'll take refuge in. The truth is that he has no place anymore, nowhere to call home.

There are so many possibilities open in front of him. He could travel, explore the world, but the idea leaves him feeling even more lonely that he is now.

His treacherous mind keeps going back to the dragon words. His raspy voice and the way he had looked at Keith.

A curse he had said, and now Keith can't help but wonder. What kind of curse is it? What does it entail? The dragon had called it a family curse, but that isn't particularly helpful.

He closes his eyes and inhales the air around of him, rich of ash and smoke. There is no need to think about the words of a beast. He'll forget about them soon.

There is nothing left for him here and traveling doesn't sound like such a terrible idea, at least for a while.

He'll discover the world and forget about the voice of a dragon and the revelation of a curse.

 

 

It works until he reaches the next city over. It stands tall still, far enough from the volcano to not fear its wrath.

Keith doesn't have much to his name, enough money for a couple of days in an inn and then... then he isn't sure. He should use the money he has sparsely, which is why he shouldn't enter the door in front of him.

While magic is widely spread in their continent, Keith has never liked relying on it. He has never consulted a mage for his crops, nor he has ever asked for a healer. He doesn't know why he's now contemplating the idea of entering a curse breaker parlor.

As much as he's trying to forget the dragon’s words they echo in his brain, a macabre litany that doesn't let him rest.

Keith doesn't know why he can't just push it away, but he knows he has to forget the encounter by any means necessary. If he's fortunate enough, he will never have to see the dragon for the rest of his life.

So he inhales deeply and exhales, steeling himself, before entering the building.

The interior looks plain, nothing like what Keith had expected, and he looks around curiously. There is a man seated on the other side of the room, and he looks up the moment Keith enters.

He looks puzzled like he can't understand what Keith is doing there, but he still smiles, cordial. "Hello, how can we help you?" he asks, with a smile.

Keith doesn't know how these things go and he wonders if maybe he's already making a terrible impression. But does he really care?
"Am I cursed?" he asks, deciding to go directly to the point.

The man blinks, evidently surprised by the question before furrowing his brows. "Why do you think you would be cursed?"

Keith scowls, annoyed. "Why does it matter? Am I or not?"

The curse breaker shakes his head and he seems a little exasperated. "That's not how it works. Curses are tied to their owner, and to correctly feel them I have to understand the type of curse."

It seems like the guy is already losing its patience, just like everyone else that talks to Keith, but this time he actually needs something from this man.

"What if I told you it smelled like citrus? And love, I guess," Keith tries, feeling a little self-conscious.

The man blinks, surprised. "Citrus and love. I have never heard a curse described that way..." he stops and raises a hand towards Keith, closing his eyes.

He remains like that for a minute, enough that Keith is starting to become uncomfortable, before reopening his eyes.

There is a certain curiosity in his gaze, and he looks towards Keith contemplatively. "There is something, that much I know, but I'm not sure exactly what it is." The man says, advancing towards Keith. "It might be something stronger than I am. Who told you about it?"

Keith squirms and for a second he thinks about admitting the truth about the dragon to this man. What would he say? Would he help Keith in some way? However, he doesn't want to be judged.

He doesn't know how to explain what has happened with the dragon, and finding the word to tell it to someone else seems impossible to him. It will have to be a secret he brings to his grave.

"It doesn't matter. There is something you can do for me?" he asks, trying to hide his nervousness under a curt tone of voice. It usually works and Keith can see the way that irritation mounts into the other's eyes.

"I can't," the man admits in the end. "If it's really a curse, and I'm not sure it is, there's nothing I can do."

If it is a curse. The dragon could still be wrong, he believes so, has to. He nods and goes for his pouch, ready to pay for the service.

The man raises his hand, shaking his head. "I didn't do anything. Keep your money. Pay someone who can actually see what it is and help you."

It's surprising, but Keith nods, grateful. He'll be able to keep his plan intact like this and spend some time in town, trying to decide what to do next.

He turns, ready to leave the store when the wizard calls him again. "A clearing hid in a mountaintop, far east. The entrance will be hidden by a lion," he tells him, out of the blue.

Keith blink surprised and turns back to ask for an explanation. The man shrugs before Keith can even talk. "It's the answer to a question you'll ask yourself later. A way to help," he explains. He smiles, motioning for Keith to leave.

Keith does so, feeling an eerie sensation run up his side.

Once his life had been much simpler, and now it seems like nothing will ever be the same anymore.

He's tired, he thinks. He lost his house, his village and the only life he knew. He's asking too much of himself, he just needs to go to sleep.

 

That night finds him laid down on a bed that is bordering on uncomfortable. He can’t seem to fall asleep and everything that has happened swims in his head.

His house, the volcano, the dragon but most of all his words. There is something that has resonated within him, a part of him that still feels on fire where the claw of the beast touched his chest.

Keith can still feel the pressure, faint as it had been, and he brings his hand there often, trying to ease the discomfort.

A curse, he had said, what would it entail? How is Keith cursed? Is he cursed to lose everything he loves? Is that what the dragon had seen within him? Because that’s what it feels like.

If it’s really that, then how can he go on now? He can move wherever he wants, but he’s doomed to continue this sick circle of misery. And Keith is so tired of being alone.

He turns in bed, trying to rationalize. He can’t trust the dragon. He’s a beast of myths that seems to follow unhappiness like a moth to a flame. Maybe he had just used Keith and what he has inside him, maybe he has corrupted him like the tales of the men describe.

There is one detail they got wrong: it was not his breath that consumed a man’s soul, but the dragon words and eyes.

Keith turns again on the bed, feeling the rugged fabric move against his skin. He won’t fall asleep, he knows that tonight he won’t be lucky, but maybe he can try and think of anything else besides the black dragon.

For one night he can pretend that nothing happened.

He manages to resist exactly ten minutes before he sits up in bed, his hair in disarray and gives up.

Keith has never been one to lie to himself or anyone else. As much trouble as it brings him, he has always been straightforward and now, he needs to be honest with himself.

He needs to find the dragon again and ask him what he meant.

It might be a suicidal mission or just a fruitless quest, but there is nothing now to keep him tied to this place. He’s sure that he can track the dragon following the tales and the scared whispers. While not many stories reached his village, everyone seemed to know about the Dragon and what accompanied all of his sightings. He’s sure that asking around he’ll be able to track him.

Keith will ask him what he meant, what kind of curse he feels on Keith, and if there is something he can do to break it.

Decision made he finally lays down again.

This time, he falls asleep almost instantly.

 

However much he tries, it’s not easy following the rumors. The more he digs the more they grow ominous and vague. For every report he hears, once he starts investigating, it’s impossible to discern what is the truth and what are the scared mumblings of an impressionable mind.

Every sighting of the dragon is followed suit by exaggerated tales of disasters. Everyone seems to be attributing their misfortune on the dragon, even if they had never actually seen him. A shadow in the sky, a gust of wind stronger than usual, and people will think it’s the dragon of misfortune.

In the month since he has started on this journey he has found nothing of value. He’s no closer now to finding him than he was before, and all he has achieved are dirty looks and mistrustful people wherever he goes. The usual.

Even today he thought he had a good lead. People had talked about a city caught by a hailstorm, even in the warmest month of summer, that had destroyed most of their crops. It had taken Keith a week to reach the village, but by the time he had arrived, he had realized no one had actually seen the dragon.
“What else could it have been?” the elder had asked Keith, irritation clear in his voice, “are you calling me a liar, boy?” Keith decided to let it go.

Without a real sighting, he doesn’t have a real direction to follow. He’s now nursing his mead, drinking away the last of his money, and wondering if it’s time to give up when two people sit in front of him.

Keith isn’t really in the mood for conversation, feeling the slight buzz of alcohol taking hold of him and still reeling from the failure of the afternoon. “Go away,” he murmurs under his breath. It’s usually enough to send people away. Which is why he’s a little surprised when one of the two people only scoffs.

“That was not very friendly. Especially towards two people that want to help ya.” Keith raises his head, surprised, and looks at the two people in front of him. One is a smaller man with an incredible mustache that continues well under his chin. The other is much taller than his companion, with a scar over one of his eyes that forces it closed.

They seem to be an unlikely pair, but Keith can’t really judge them.

“What do you mean help?” he asks, putting as much distrust as he can in his voice. He’s not sure what they want, but he has learned from a young age to be always on alert.

The big man scoffs, and then he looks at the other. “I told you we should’va leave this alone.”

The smaller man just shrugs. “If ya don’t want our help that’s fine. But I thought you were looking for that big dragon in the sky.”

Keith raises his eyebrow to show his interest, but he doesn’t let himself believe them just yet. It’s not the first time someone approached him to talk about their experience with the beast and usually it doesn’t amount to anything but the usual tales.

Still, he isn’t in a position to send them away.

“What about him? Do you know where he is?” he inquires, looking intensely at the two.

The big one opens his mouth to answer, but he closes it with a yelp. It’s possible that the other man had shut him up before he could say anything.

“I’m Vakala. This is Remdax.” They introduce themselves quickly and then look at Keith, expectantly. Keith realizes after a second that they are waiting for him to introduce himself as well.

“I’m Keith,” he concedes, a little grumpily.

Vakala nods, but his posture is still a little rigid. It’s obvious there is something worrying him, but Keith can’t be sure about what.

“You see, we might be able to help you, but we need to know why exactly you’re searching for the beast,” he explains, looking around. Remdax simply nods, but it seems he’s not too happy to be silenced.

Keith isn’t sure how to reply. On one hand: would it really matter if he told them the truth? No one really knows Keith here, and no one really likes him anywhere.

Still, he’s hesitant to reveal that he suspects that he might be cursed, or that the dragon talked to him. Keith knows first hand the effect that the beast has on people, and while he doesn’t care about their impression of him, he would also prefer not to be branded as a bringer of misfortune himself.

“Why do people look for him?” he answers then, drinking some of his mead. He’s sure they can infer the answer by themselves.

“So you want to hunt them like anyone else?” Vakala repeats, nodding to himself. Remdax huffs and shakes his head.

“I told you this was useless,” he says, getting up, “they are all the same.”

Keith watches surprised as both of them rise up and leave the table without saying anything else. Remdax is grumbling something under his breath that Keith can’t hear. It’s such an abrupt reaction that Keith is stunned for a couple of seconds, watching them go before he has the time to follow them.

He scrambles after them as fast as he can, catching up to them just as they are leaving the inn. “No, wait. Where are you going?”

“We’re sorry we wasted your time,” Vakala replies immediately, without even turning to look at him, “we were wrong.”

“What do you mean you were wrong?” he asks, a little out of breath. He’s starting to get angry, he realizes, but he has to be careful. This seems to be the first solid lead he’s ever found and he can’t let it get away.

“We thought you might have needed him,” Remdax replies, giving him the stink eyes, “instead you’re just like everyone else.”

Keith doesn’t know what’s happening and it seems to him like nothing it’s going how it should be. These two men seem different than anyone else he has met in this investigation. They appear to hold the dragon in some form of regard, or at least they appear to be protective of him.

It’s strange, and Keith can’t hide the fact that he’s intrigued. Still, he can’t let them leave, not now that they have revealed they might know his location. Keith has invested too much time and too much energy in this search to give up now.

“I do need him,” he promises, careful not to raise his voice too much. The pair doesn’t really stop, but they look at him with disbelief. He realizes that he will need to give them more if he wants to convince them. “He… he said I was cursed,” he admits then, lowering his voice still. “I need to know what he meant.”

Finally, the two stop, looking at Keith and trying to gauge his sincerity.

Keith doesn’t know how to make himself look trustworthy, and he knows most people dislike him on sight, but he tries.

Whatever he’s doing must be working because Remdax sighs and grumbles something, but he looks less tense. Vakala nods and then elbows his friend with a smirk. “Told ya he was one of those.”

“One of those?” Keith asks, unable to hide the confusion from his tone. He’s not sure he understands what is happening, and at this point a part of him is scared to.

Remdax shrugs. “One of his cursed things.”

There is no malevolence in his voice, but Keith still recoils, shocked by them. One of his cursed things? Did the dragon really curse him, then? Was he now bound to him in any way? Was this why he was so desperate to find him?
Vakala slaps Remdax’s shoulder with an annoyed huff. “You’re not explaining it properly,” he says to his friend before he looks back to Keith. “If you want to know everything you need to find him. We… we know where he lives and we can point it to you on a map.”

A part of him wants to decline and run back towards a normal life. He might not be able to have a life of luxury, but he knows he can have one of peace. Wherever this path leads him, however, seems to be filled with tragedy and dangers.

He should turn back now and pretend he never met the beast or ever heard his voice. It would be the sensible thing to do. Keith already knows he will persevere.

When he shows them his map, he has given his answer. They both look at each other for a moment and then point at a specific place on the map.

“You’ll find his lair here. He might not be there at the moment, but he always comes back. Don’t touch anything inside, however, he’s… very adamant about that,” Vakala explains.

When Keith nods and tries to take back his map the other holds on to it for a moment. “It’s not that bad, you know,” he says, with a strange expression, “being one of his cursed things. He’s not that bad.”

Keith thinks of the dragon, of his scales as black as the night itself and his silver wing that shines in the light like the hand of death, and he’s not sure he agrees.

 

Keith leaves the next day, as soon as he's able. He doesn't look back and doesn't bother to say goodbye to his two informants. Looking at the map he has probably a week of traveling in front of him, and he would prefer not to lose daylight.

It takes him six days in the end, and, in the meantime, he loses himself in speculation and fears. Vakala's words circle around his brain, but Keith can't make sense of them.

It would be better, he thinks, if he knew the nature of his connection with this dragon. If there was a way to make sure that this would lead him somewhere that wasn't his death. After all, how could he know that the dragon wouldn't kill him?
Only because no one has ever seen him kill someone it doesn't mean that there weren't people that just weren't here to say anything, fallen under the dragon's claws.

He knows that worrying about this wouldn't be of any help, but as much as he tries to keep his mind blank and free of such heavy thoughts, they come back every night, where his defenses are at their lowest.

On the dawn of the sixth day, he looks at his map and realizes that he should be close to his destination. He's deep into the mountains, and he's starting to get low on provisions. If he doesn't find the lair soon, he fears, he might never make it out of this mountain alive.

Wouldn't it be a fitting end for him? Dead, busy following a symbol of misfortune. He would only have himself to blame.

Still, he starts walking like every morning, taking care of looking around for any possible cave or clearing where the dragon could make a nest.

For hours he looks without luck and he fears that today will be another day wasted. It's only when he decides to climb and reach a more advantageous position that he spots it.

There is a relic, in the center of a small clearing, protected by mountains on all side. Without being able to fly, a place like this would be practically impossible to reach.

It appears to have been a castle once, a long time ago, but there is almost nothing remaining of the imposing building. Almost all of the ceilings are caved in, and the walls have fallen suit. The only place that seems to be relatively intact appears to be a tower on the east side of the castle.

Keith looks at it and he knows he has the right place.

It takes him still another three hours to reach it, and when he does the sun is starting to disappear over the mountains. Soon, it would be too dark for him to see anything.

Keith can't help but hesitate in front of the entrance, wondering what exactly is his plan here. If the dragon is inside, what would he say to him? He wants answers, but does he really have any right to demand them?

Feeling a shadow of fear and uncertainty fall upon him, Keith clutches at his dagger, hoping to find in the memory of his family the courage he needs.

A familiar curse, the dragon had said, and Keith has to understand what he meant.

Inhaling he takes a step forward, and then another. Soon he breaches the door of the tower and finds himself inside the lair of a beast.

On one hand, it's exactly like he expected. The light that emanates from the caved in ceiling only serves to cast deeper shadows on the part of the tower still covered. The different floors that once had composed the tower seem to have all been destroyed and now it's a single structure with no roof. The room is large enough to house even the imposing figure of the dragon.

"Dragon?" he calls, realizing now that he has no idea how to talk to a dragon. "Is someone here?" he wonders out loud, and the only answers he receives is a deafening silence. It appears that he's alone now.

He remembers what Vakal and Remdax had told him and he nods to himself. The dragon always returns to his nest, he just has to wait.

For a moment he wonders if he should wait outside, as to not enrage the beast, but he wants to investigate. If he can manage to discover anything on his own, the dragon will have less of an advantage on him. At least, he hopes to understand more about the situation. He steps in even more, then, looking around and spotting, at the end of the room, a large pile of what appear to be rocks. Among them, he notices various items that don't seem to have any connection to each other.

Getting closer he can see a vase, a book, a cloak, and other such items.

This, he realizes, must be the dragon's hoard, but he can't seem to understand of what it is composed. He would think that the Dragon would just hoard random objects if it wasn't for all the rocks mixed within.

As it is, he has no idea what it could be.

He observes it and for a second he feels his eyes drawn to an object on the right. It takes him a second for him to see that it's a clock, one of extraordinary manufactory, it appears. It seems to be completely made of gold, and Keith could swear that he hears the tick-tock of its hands.

It's eerie, and yet mesmerizing. It calls to him, a siren song that he's unable to resist.

Keith knows he shouldn't be touching anything, after all he had been warned explicitly not to, but at the same time: would it really be that bad? The dragon isn't there, and he might stay away for the whole night.

Before he even realizes it, he extends his hand and reaches for the clock. Just a light touch.

A roar shakes him out of his stupor and he has just the time to jump back before a tail lands in the exact spot where he was before. Keith looks up and sees the dragon, perched on top of the hoard, looking furious at Keith's trespassing.

Right. Don't touch his stuff.

"Stay back," the dragon roars again, using one of his wings to cover the hoard and obscuring it from Keith's sight. He's using his black wing, and Keith feels almost the exact same impulse to touch it. Just like it had happened for the clock.

He refrains, knowing full well that it wouldn't end well for him.

"I'm sorry," he says, trying to placate the beast. "I didn't want to... I don't know what came over me." It takes a moment to sink in that he means it. He has no idea what came over him. Now that he's not looking at the little watch, he doesn't understand why he had felt compelled to touch it. "I... really don't know," he repeats, furrowing his brows.

The dragon doesn't say anything for a moment before he moves, lowering his head. His wing still hides the hoard from Keith's view, but there is a part of Keith that it's grateful for it.

"You..." the dragon starts, before he sniffs the air. "I remember you, You're still cursed."

Keith blinks, surprised that the dragon remembers him. He shakes himself quickly. Right, this is why he's here, this is why he has spent the last month following any news about the dragon. "What do you mean with that?" he asks.

The dragon seems to be confused for a moment, his grey eyes dilating for a second. "I mean that you have a curse on you," he repeats like it's obvious to him. After a second he adds, sounding regretful: "I can't break it."

"But I'm not cursed!" Keith exclaims. Could someone have cursed him when he was a baby? For what? He simply doesn't have any memory of this.

The dragon pauses for a moment, observing him. After a couple of seconds, the beast moves again, raising his wing and putting one of his paws just in front of Keith. Out of habit, Keith reaches for his dagger, but the dragon simply gets his snout close to Keith's chest.

"I can feel it," the dragon explains, his low voice rumbling inside of Keith, "it's here, inside your chest. It's old and deeply rooted inside of you." He pauses and then raises his gaze to meet Keith's. "I don't think it was meant for you, but it was passed down from someone in your family."

I don't have a family, he wants to say, not anymore. The thought of revealing that to this beast makes him feel weak and exposed, and Keith doesn't want to concede even an inch. "Say I believe you," he says, "do you know what this curse is?"

The dragon holds his gaze for a second before he retreats, going back to perching over his hoard. "I do not. I think I recognize the type of magic, but I don't know what it is."

Keith thinks he's lying. He wouldn't be able to say why he thinks so, but he's sure of it.

"I'm here because you told me I was cursed," Keith says, advancing. He can see the Dragon bristle, closing his wing protectively over the hoard. "I'm here because I need to know if that's true and you're the only one who can help me."

The more Keith advances, the less in control the dragon appears to be. He looks nervous, and he watches Keith like a hawk. "I can't help you. I'm sorry, you did all this for nothing."

"I don't believe you," Keith informs him, feeling some of his confidence come back. He's here because he has to do this: he doesn't have anything else.

"They said I was one of your cursed things," he repeats the words almost with a snarl, and he's surprised to see the Dragon react to them. "You did this to me. You have to help me."

"I didn't do anything," the dragon roars back, and, for the first time, there is something under his voice that Keith can't recognize. It almost appears like sadness. "I didn't..." this time his voice is quieter now, almost as if he wasn't trying to be heard.

"But you can help me?" Keith presses. The dragon bristles for a second before he sighs.

"I can't," the beast repeats, but before Keith can say anything, he continues, "but I know someone who can. She should be able to remove the curse."

So there is a possibility. Keith finally breathes easier. "Thank you," he feels like he should say. The dragon looks at him surprised for a second and then turns, avoiding Keith's gaze.

"We'll be able to leave tomorrow. If we leave later in the morning we'll be able to reach the city just when it darkens." It doesn't seem like the dragon is asking for Keith's input, and he feels rather annoyed.

"Can't we go now? Wouldn't it make more sense to travel with the aid of the night?" after all it wouldn't be difficult for the dragon to blend with the night sky. He doesn't want to wait, not now that he knows that the answers he needs are so close.

The dragon huffs, a sound that it's so strangely human. "I've been flying all day," he explains, before turning towards Keith, "and you smell of exhaustion. We'll rest and leave tomorrow."

Keith wants to protest again, but he needs to remain in the dragon's good graces. He nods and looks around. He will have to sleep outside again, and he's not looking forward to the experience.

He's already turning when he hears the heavy paws of the dragon move behind him. Before he even realizes the tail of the other slides in front of him, blocking him. "There's a room," the dragon explains, "better than sleeping outside. It even has a roof."

Keith looks at the dragon with surprise, but he can't help but feel conflicted about it. What does the dragon mean with a room? It's unlikely that there would be a bed. Still, a roof sounds incredible.

"Thank you," Keith simply says, and starts walking in the direction the dragon is pushing him too.

They leave the tower and enter the main area of the castle. From the inside, it looks as terrible as Keith had observed. Some of the walls and most of the ceiling have collapsed under years of abandonment. It allows the dragon to walk around freely, but it also adds an aura of tragedy to the whole experience.

They walk for a couple of minutes before they stop. Keith notices immediately the little alcove protected from a part of the ceiling that still stands. It appears to be set up like a real room. A human room. Keith is curious and surprised and he takes a step forward.

The closer he gets, the more he sees that it's not as tidy as it appears from further away. It looks like most of the furniture was dropped quite carelessly around, and some of the smaller objects are laid on their side, almost as if someone had problems putting them back on the right side. He can also see a lot of scratches that can only belong to the dragon's claws.

This room appears to be important to the beast, and the fact that he's allowing Keith to sleep in it seems rather strange.

"I..." Keith starts, but the dragon interrupts him.

"Don't touch anything but the bed," he says, moving away. "I'll be in the other room."

Keith watches him go, surprised to be left alone. Before the dragon disappears out of sight, he remembers one thing he had forgotten to ask. "What's your name?" Keith exclaims, hoping that the dragon isn't far away enough.

He's not sure if dragons have names, but until now he hadn't been sure that dragons talked. The creature stops and looks back towards Keith in surprise. He seems to be hesitating a second before he replies. "Shiro," the dragon answers. His wing, the black one, flaps once, almost as if he was embarrassed. "You?"

"Keith," he immediately replies. The dragon nods and then leaves.

Keith didn't expect much more to come from the conversation, so he doesn't know why he feels disappointed.

Still, he looks back towards the room and observes everything he can.

Much like the dragon's hoard, this room is filled with random objects. There are dolls, little rocks that shine bright and with a myriad of colors. There are hairpins, but also little statues of animals. There are also books, but Keith doesn't dare open them.

He's reluctant to touch anything here, the experience with the clock still too fresh in his mind, but he looks around. It appears like a normal human room. Filled with random items, but nothing too strange.

Keith wonders what's the story behind this. The more he discovers, the more curious he gets of the dragon and the legends that surround his name.

He wants to go back to ask, but he has to remind himself that this is not why he's here. He'll get this curse removed and then he'll never have to see the dragon again.

This is the plan.

He doesn't have time to worry about strange hoards and human rooms in the middle of abandoned castles.

Now he just needs to mean that.

 

Morning doesn't come quickly, and he tosses and turns inside the bed, wondering what exactly is he doing.

The dragon, Shiro, promised he would bring Keith to someone who could help him, but he's still not sure if he can trust the dragon.

When the night is finally over he has more questions than answers.

Keith goes to find the dragon immediately, expecting to find him asleep possibly on top of his hoard, but he's surprised when he enters the main hall only to find it empty. Did the Dragon leave him there? The presence of the hoard is a good sign, no Dragon would ever abandon his hoard for too long.

"You're awake," he hears and he looks up, startled. The Dragon is there, perched on top of one of the half-collapsed pillars. It doesn't look exactly comfortable given the dragon's build, but the creature doesn't seem to mind.

Keith only nods, unsure of what to say exactly.

He's surprised again when the dragon releases something from his paw and a deer lands in front of Keith. The animal is dead, but it's obvious it's still fresh.

It's strange to think that Shiro went hunting Keith's breakfast.

"You didn't eat yesterday," the dragon explains, his tail twisting over the pillar. "You can make a fire and cook it. After, we leave."

"A fire?" he asks, surprised. Wouldn't it make more sense for Shiro to help him with that?

The dragon simply huffs and shakes his head. "I'm not that kind of dragon," he explains like Keith should know what that means.

The truth is that dragons aren't that common. Once, maybe, they had been as common as griffins or wizards, but they had been hunted for generations in order to obtain their scales—who could grand anyone incredible powers, or so the legend says.

The more the dragons got closer to extinction, the more people forgot about them. Keith doesn't know what kind of dragons there are, nor how to recognize the differences.

Shiro is the first dragon he has ever seen in his life, and he will probably be the last.

Still, Keith is hungry. He hasn't eaten anything of substance in a while, and the meat will be good. Rejecting the dragon's gift could be seen as a sign of disrespect, and Keith needs to keep Shiro on his side.

"Fine," he replies then, taking the animal's carcass. "Thank you."
Shiro doesn't answer and he flies down, landing between Keith and his hoard, once again shielding it. In the morning light, the little hurdle of mismatched objects and rocks is even more mysterious and even eerier. There is an aura surrounding the pile, the same that seems to stick over the dragon's hide. There is death there, that circles in the air. Sadness too.

It's not Keith's job to figure out any of this, and so he simply drags the animal outside and sets up to light a fire. It's surprisingly easy and he finds more sticks than he would have assumed.

He thinks this might have been Shiro's doing too.

It takes him close to two hours to finish his meal, and there is still a good chunk of meat left. He wonders if he should offer it to the dragon, a conciliatory gesture, but he wouldn't know where to begin.

Keith sighs and looks back to the tower, wondering how to alert the creature that he's done, and he's surprised to see that his line of sight towards the hoard is free. No dragon to obscure it.

For the second time in a matter of hours, he fears that the dragon has flown again and is immediately proven wrong.

A shadow falls over him and Keith looks up only to see the silhouette of the dragon over the top of the tower. He doesn't seem to be looking at Keith, however, but only glancing towards the distance.

"I'm done," he screams, hoping that the other can hear him. After a couple of seconds it's obvious that this is not the case.

For a moment he wonders if there is any way for him to reach the top, but the more he looks the more it seems like an impossible task. There doesn't seem to be a way to reach the dragon without having wings.

What he can do, however, is take the time to observe the beast.

Once again he's given an opportunity that not many had: the dragon isn't aware of him, looking into the distance. Even so far away, some of the creature's distinct features are clearly visible.

His massive build, for one, but mostly his wing.

Keith had looked at it in the heat of battle, or clouded by fear and resentment. Now, he tries to look at it objectively.

It's strangely beautiful. It doesn't seem to mix with his scales, however, like a brand someone imposed on his bones. The white stripes look like pale fingers, reaching from the wing’s tip towards the beast's heart.

It would be poetic if it wasn't the bad omen people saw before losing everything they held dear. Just like Keith did.

After months, this is the first time he feels like he's not moving towards his objective. He has a new lead, someone who would help him in discovering what his curse meant, but he's in the dragon's hands.

There is nothing for him to do but wait.

He remembers now why he started looking. The crushing sensation of loss isn't completely unexpected, but it still knocks him over. He's not only mourning his home but a life he didn't even enjoy.

Yet now he feels like he had taken it for granted.

It's probably not something very healthy, missing something that had caused him so much pain for so long, and yet the sadness is there. No one might have liked Keith in that village, but it had been his home. The only one he ever knew.

Keith is so lost in his own thoughts that he notices too late the shadow advancing towards him, and only when the dragon lands just beside him, causing the earth to shake under Keith's feet. This time Keith slowly looks towards the dragon, masking his surprise.

"If you're done we better be moving," the dragon says, "we have a lot of road to cover."
He nods and gets up, a little surprised when the dragon simply lowers himself to the ground.

Keith had never really realized what it would have meant to leave together. It's obvious that the most obvious choice was for Keith to ride on the dragon's back, and yet he hadn't put the pieces back until now.

His hesitation must be evident on his face because the dragon simply huffs and looks at him. "I'm not going to hurt you. I believe I would be in more danger than you."

Keith blinks, surprised, and realized he never said anything about the attack. Keith’s failed assassination attempt hangs in the air, awkwardly staring them in the face. Should he apologize now? Or it would just seem forced? Was there really any reason for him to apologize? After all, he hadn't really succeeded.

He stands awkwardly for a second before he sees the dragon's tail creep towards him. Keith watches with a little bit of fascination as the dragon puts the tip of his tail behind Keith and starts to push him towards himself.

At that point, Keith just has to follow the dragon's lead. "Yes. Okay," he mumbles, jumping on the dragon's back. He fears for a moment that he had been too forceful, but Shiro shakes it off immediately, getting up.

Keith realizes soon that he doesn't have many places to use as a perch, and he puts his hands on the dragon's neck. "Good," the beast rumbles, his voice making his entire body shake, "hold tight."

It's all he gets before Shiro starts flapping his big wings and hovering in mid-air. Keith holds harder on his neck. looking at the ground getting smaller and smaller. They are flying, and the notion leaves him breathless.

The dragon is surprisingly gentle and elegant in the way he flies. So much so that after the moment of fear, Keith realizes that he doesn't really need to hold onto the creature's neck.

Shiro doesn’t go fast, preferring to glide more than picking up speed. Keith realizes they are high enough that no one would be able to really see them. The dragon’s wings flap slowly, every time allowing them to pick up a little more speed but making sure that the movement doesn’t jar Keith too much. It’s obvious that Shiro is used to carrying people on his back, every movement coming from habit. He flies with the certainty of someone who has done this many times.

Keith looks at the silver wing now, from closer than ever before. For a second, just like the day before with the clock, he's tempted to reach and touch the silver veins. He wonders if they would feel the same as the dragon's scale, or if they would be colder to the touch.

Are they really even part of the dragon?

There are so many questions he wants to ask, but he remains silent, observing the view as they travel. It's not his place to inquire after the dragon, and he wouldn't know how to ask anyway.

Hours pass in almost complete silence. Keith doesn't know if the journey takes this long because of the Dragon's slow pace, or if the place they are going is really that far south. To fight off the sleepiness that naturally comes from staying still for so long, he looks at the changing landscape under them.

The cold and harsh mountains where Shiro's lair is, disappear gradually to a gentler grassland. He has passed it, he realizes, in his travels. But they continue further south, where the land becomes bare, tinted with yellow and brown. Keith knows that if they veered a little bit west they would be heading to Keith's hometown, or what remained of it. Shiro continues south.

The sun is starting to dim, disappearing on the horizon, when the land changes again. First Keith sees a prairie and the first signs of young trees. It doesn't take long for them to become taller and taller, their branches growing in height but also in fullness. Soon, Keith can't see anything but leaves under them.

The light has almost completely disappeared, and Keith can see the moon up in the sky, watching over them with a gentle shine. They've been flying for the entire day and he's moderately impressed by Shiro's endurance. Never once he has slowed down or shown any inclination of needing rest.

Even Keith, who has done nothing but ride the beast's back, is starting to feel the effects of the trip. Yet the dragon continues, silent.

He wonders if he could ask how long do they have until they arrive, realizing he knows absolutely nothing about where they are headed. He has been reckless, too anxious to get his answers. There is nothing for him to do now.

Unable to help himself, he looks back towards the dragon's wing. Now that night has taken hold in the sky, the silver veins shine less than under the sun. Their paleness, however, only seems to make the contrast between them and the dragon's scales even more clear.

Without even realizing he extends his hand, stopping mere inches from them. If Shiro realizes his movements, nothing gives it away. The wings continue moving slowly, rising and falling every couple of minutes. Keith just… really wants to touch it.

The reason behind this need is unknown to him, but it has been present for the entire travel, humming inside him with a strange insistence. Keith knows he shouldn't. While the dragon hadn't said anything about not touching them, Keith had also noticed that the beast favored his left wing, keeping the silver one closer to his body. Shielding it.

Yet, now Keith only needs to move slightly to touch it. And the temptation fills his lungs with longing.

"We're almost there," Shiro's voice cuts through the air and Keith startles, losing his balance. Shiro drops his left side slightly to compensate and Keith soon straightens himself.

He's a little embarrassed, and he wonders if Shiro decided to speak at that exact moment because he knew Keith was losing the battle with his self-control.

"Where is there, exactly?" he asks, trying to drag his mind away from the wing.

"Arus," Shiro replies, almost uninterested.

Keith heard of Arus before, obviously. It was one of the biggest cities of the continent, filled to the brim of people and broken dreams.

Most of the people from his village had talked about going to Arus to search for fortune and a chance to rebuild their lives. Keith doesn't know if that choice had been a fortuitous one.

"Why Arus?" he wonders. Shiro had talked about someone that could help him, and Keith had imagined something as mysterious and mystical as Shiro himself. he doesn't think something like that could be hiding in Arus.

"You'll need to search for Allura. If someone can break your curse it's her," the dragon explains. "She knows more about this than I do."

The way he's describing her, this Allura seems to be another mage attuned to curse breaking, just like the one Keith had gone months before. He feels incredibly disappointed, realizing that he should have asked earlier to know their destination.

"I've already been to a curse breaker," he says. His voice is annoyed and the dragon must pick up on it.

"She's... different," Shiro simply says. Keith doesn't really believe him, but it's true that this is a world where Keith doesn't belong. Magic and enchantments have always been unknown to Keith and his father, two lonely farmers.

Still, he opens his mouth to protest further when the dragon orders him to hold on and dives towards the forest. Keith scrambles forward, circling the dragon's neck with his arms, and miraculously avoids falling from the dragon's back.

He closes his eyes, unable to look at the approaching ground and so he misses the moment of their landing. Only when the wind has dissipated he opens his eyes again.

It seems that Shiro has been able to avoid hitting any of the branches of the trees, and only because this seems to be a part of the forest where the vegetation appears to be less thick. Still, there's nothing but trees around them.

"I thought we were going to Arus," Keith says, unable to mask the confusion in his voice.

The dragon simply huffs, moving his shoulders. It's obvious that he's motioning for Keith to get off his back and he complies immediately. "Arus is a couple of miles in that direction. I can't accompany you there,"

"What?" Keith can't help but ask, a little confused. "How am I supposed to know where to go?"

Shiro simply huffs. There is something strange in his gaze and in the tense way he moves. The space they've landed is too small for him. He needs to keep his wings close to his body and every movement has to be calculated in order not to hit a tree. His tail is also still, wrapped around one of his paws, almost as if he's afraid to hit something with it.

He looks gentle if that is even a word that can be used to describe a dragon.

"You know what would happen if someone saw me," Shiro growls, under his breath. "I can't accompany you in the city. Ask around for Allura."

Right. Despair will befall anyone who sees the dragon with the silver wing, Keith almost forgot.

Is that why Shiro had flown so high? To avoid being spotted? Or maybe to avoid ruining someone's life? That seemed absurd, after all it's what Shiro does, right? Ruin people's lives.

Keith doesn't know what face he's making while he thinks about it, but he can see the way Shiro retreats, almost becoming smaller. Keith didn't think it was possible for such a massive creature.

"Ask for Allura once you reach the gates of the city. It's late, but there should be guards. They'll know where she is," Shiro tells him and he crouches down, evidently getting ready to fly away.

"Wait!" Keith calls, at once afraid of being alone. He has spent so much time looking for this dragon and the idea of letting him go so easily—when he doesn't even know if this Allura will have the answers he seeks—feels wrong.

Shiro looks at Keith for a moment, his lizard eyes zeroing on him. "I'll be back here," Shiro promises before he flies away.

Keith is forced to close his eyes, in order to protect them from the dust that the dragon rises and when he can open them again, he's alone.

The only signs of Shiro's presence are the massive footprints of the claw on the ground. Keith bends and touches it for a second, realizing once more how dangerous that beast could be. Keith's hands are as big as one of Shiro's claws. The creature could kill him with just a single blow.

And yet, Keith is still alive. Even after trying to kill him, even after almost touching the dragon's hoard. He's alive.

When he thinks about it like this, it doesn't make much sense. While no one has ever said that the dragon kills directly, Keith feels no ill intentions from the creature himself. Only with everything that surrounds him.

Stupidly, he wonders if the first person the dragon brings despair to is himself.

Anyway, he can't really spend too much time wondering after the dragon. He has a curse to break.

 

The road to Arus isn't very long, but Keith is tired and weak from lack of food and even this trek feels like too much. He would like to stop and hunt something, but he doesn't know if this deal will expire.

The dragon hasn't told him how long this Allura will be waiting for him; the possibility that he might lose the opportunity is a threat enough that he pushes past the hunger.

Keith isn't sure what hour is it when he reaches the doors of the city, but even if the moon is high in the sky, there are two guards standing in front of the entrance, looking menacingly at everyone who wants to enter. Right now, only Keith.

He approaches them a little hesitant, but they just look at him, It's obvious that they aren't going to stop him, but they also follow him closely and he can read the immediate distrust in their face. Keith can't help but wonder how he looks. He has been on the road for months now, and he knows that his clothes look ragged, and his face tired. He probably passes for a nomad, going from city to city without a place to call home.

He feels like that most of the time.

Still, he stops in front of one of the guards. "I'm sorry. I'm looking for Allura, and I would appreciate any assistance in reaching her place."

The guards look at each other and Keith would like to say he doesn't know what their glances mean. He has lived his entire life being looked over in that way and he's intimate with the immediate disdain that people are quick to send his way.

There's something about you, most would say, with a sneer. Keith has never understood what it was. But he thinks he might be getting closer to.

They hesitate before answering him, obviously trying to case his intentions. Rational thinking must win over their immediate suspicions, They point him to a little house on the outskirts of town, south of the center, One of them points out that the city is full of guards and he could ask them for any further directions. Keith takes it for the subtle warning it was supposed to be.

Still, he goes on his way and pretends like the eyes of the guards don't follow him down the road. He gets lost a couple of time on the way, but the last person he asks tells him he's looking for a house with a pink roof. Something peculiar enough that Keith is immediately sure when he reaches it.

The house isn't as small as he would have imagined. Actually, it's a little cottage, with a garden in the back and a barn to the side. It looks like the house of someone who has money, and Keith can't help but wonder what kind of curse breaker could have this amount of cash.

Still, like everything lately, it's not his business to care, so he simply walks to the front door and gets ready to knock. Before he can the door flies open revealing an old gentleman with a red mustache.

He looks well dressed and he smiles at Keith immediately. It's not a sign that often welcomes Keith's arrival anywhere.

"There you are, we were waiting for you!" the man says, stepping back and allowing Keith room to enter the house. "We were wondering if you got lost."

Keith can't help but be confused. When did Shiro have time to warn him? Who is this we?

"I-" he starts, but the man only pushes him further inside before closing the door behind them.

"Did you eat? Probably not. Shiro has never been particularly good at feeding anyone. Don't worry, I'll make you something special."

Keith would refuse if only his stomach would stop growling so loudly.

"Coran, let him enter before you attack him in this way." Another voice comes in, gentler. Keith looks up to see a woman walking towards them.

She's dressed in a light white dress with some blue undertones. Her hair is as white as Shiro's wing and Keith can't help but blink at the resemblance. There is little doubt in his mind that this has to be Allura.

"The kid is obviously starving," the man says with a huff. Considering what time it is, they probably flew over here without taking any stops.

Keith opens his mouth to confirm, but Allura beats him to it. "Probably, but Shiro made it sound like an emergency. Why don't you step in while we leave Coran to cook us something?" by the end, Keith realizes that they are both looking at him. He doesn't know what else to do but nod.

Dinner sounds incredible.

Coran smiles at him while he walks into another room but Allura doesn't move, simply staring at him. There is something in her gaze that goes beyond a normal human stare. Otherworldly would be the word to describe it; intimidating would work too.

Keith doesn't know how much Allura knows about him, and this uncertainty leaves him unsettled. It's a strange feeling, knowing you’re at a disadvantage with someone you just met.

In the end, Allura simply nods and then points to another room in the house. "Why don't we sit at the table? Much more comfortable for the discussion that awaits us."

Keith nods and follows her into what appears to be a dining room with a round table. It's a little odd, less elegant than what he would have expected. From the looks of Allura and Coran, Keith was imagining a long table and them eating at the two extremities.

This room looked like something Keith's house could have.

Allura sits down immediately, mentioning to the char in front of her and Keith is quick to follow. The sooner they break this curse, the better.

"Shiro didn't tell me much," Allura prefaces, with a serious expression, "only that we would be awaiting someone. And that it was serious enough that you searched for him. Not many do."

"How did you... I mean..." he doesn't know how to ask how Allura and Shiro communicated. it's probably not his place. It's strange enough that both her and Coran don't seem to hate him on sight. He shouldn't push too much.

Allura, however, doesn't seem very bothered. "Magic, of course. A little device we have for long communication. It's useful for short messages and nothing more."

"It's magic also the reason why Coran opened the door before I could enter? Did he..." it felt stupid to ask if he had seen him. Keith doesn't really know how magic works, and he often feels wrongfooted in inquiring about it.

Once again Allura remains unfazed. "Yes. Also, we have a window."

It takes a second for the meaning to sink in and, in the end, Keith can't help but chuckle. Allura's demeanor relaxes after the joke.

"Why don't you tell me something more about your problem?" she asks, looking at him. "I would like you to start with your name."

Right. "I'm Keith. I... I don't really know much. One day I met Shiro when..." he stops, realizing that revealing the details of their first encounter might not be in his best interest.

While he doesn't really understand how it's possible, it's obvious there is some kind of relationship between them and the dragon. Much like the two men that first helped Keith, he thinks they might get protective if he reveals he tried to kill him.

"We met when he flew over my village and he told me I was cursed. He said it's something that's rooted in my family," he explains, shrugging. "Said he could smell it on me."

"Yes," Allura mumbles, looking at him, "that he does." She sounds a little far away, however, like she's not really listening to Keith. She extends his hand towards him and for a moment, Keith sees a purple light engulf her hand. Her eyes turn completely blue.

A second later, Allura is back to normal.

"I see," she only says, furrowing her brows. It doesn't sound like a good I see. It sounds like Keith's curse might be killing him if he's honest. "You are cursed, there is no doubt about that."

He blinks feeling for a second the same incredulous laughter coming over to him. How many times will he have to hear this before the knowledge doesn't seem strange to him?

"How is it possible?" he wonders out loud, instead of saying what he's really thinking. Telling her he's not sure if he believes any of this might get him kicked out.

"Someone in your family was first cursed... It looks like druid's magic." She says it like it should mean something, but it mostly leaves Keith even more confused.

"Druids?" he hopes the confusion is clear in his question, that maybe she'll start explaining something to him now.

Thankfully some of his puzzlement must show on his face because Allura seems to focus on him. "There is something around you, I noticed the moment you walked in the door, that makes people dislike you instantly. I don't believe this was the intended effect of the course, but I think its effect change the more it gets passed around."

"So this curse wasn't mine?" he asks, just to be sure he's clear about the meaning of Allura's words.

She nods, firmly. "I'd say that this was probably your parents' curse. Maybe your grandparents'. I don't know why they would be cursed by a druid, they don't usually get mixed with normal people."

"Normal people?" he can't help but ask, feeling offended for no reason in particular. He assumes there's nothing wrong with being normal, but the way Allura said it, she made it seem that it meant less.

"Druids are magicians that roam the world in search of power. They are interested in expanding and finding ways to improve our understanding of magic and find new uses for it." Allura looks up when the door opens and Coran enters with two cups.

"I thought some tea might help while the soup cooks," he explains, handing Keith one cup. He takes it but still looks curiously at the other.

"Can't you just heat it up with magic?" Keith asks. Coran laughs, not unkindly.

"Unfortunately not, my friend, I'm just as normal as you are." The other doesn't seem too bothered by the admission. He smiles at Allura, handling her the other cup, and then retreating into the other room.

Allura smiles at his back before turning back towards Keith. "A Druid's goal isn't bad per se. But some have taken this noble pursuit and..." she stops and looks at her tea, a pensive look on her face. "They hurt creatures. They hurt other mages. They don't stop at anything to get what they want. It's not unusual for magical beings to be attacked or even cursed by a Druid but..."

"But I'm not magical. From what I know, neither were my parents." He stops, trying to think about it. Actually... "I'm sure about my father. My mother had to leave when I was young, or so my father said."

Allura looks at him for a second before putting her tea on the table. She rises and walks towards Keith. When she's at his side, she put a hand on his shoulder and she stills.

This time the purple glow starts in her hands but grows to cover all of her body, Her eyes are unfocused but just as blue as before.

"The core of the curse is that no one affected by it will be able to be loved. However, I think the original curse was much more... violent than yours." Her voice sounds distant, but her words cut Keith deeper than a sword.

The implications are too much for him and for a moment he doesn't ask for more. He leaves himself a moment to leave in a word where his mother didn't have to abandon him for a curse. But he has to know. "What do you mean?"

"Your curse seems to be focused on making people hate you but in the beginning, it was supposed to cause harm to anyone who came to love the cursed person," Allura explains. Her face looks contrite. "Your mother might have left you to protect you."

He had already come to the same conclusion, but for some reason hearing it from Allura’s mouth hits him harder. It makes it real. This curse might have robbed him of his family, of a normal life, of knowing his mother.

The rage that swells up inside him is almost enough to make him break the cup of tea Coran made for him. It would be improper, even rude, but he thinks this might warrant it.

Still, he lets the anger deep inside him and consume him slowly. Another curse, in a way, branding him.

“Can you break the curse?” he asks, trying to control his feelings. That’s the reason he came here, whatever else he’ll deal with it once he’s out of here. Maybe he can look for his mother, now, once he knows how to break the curse.

He’ll help her break hers and then… he doesn’t know. Never even thought of the possibility of having this flicker of hope.

Allura looks back at him only for a moment before sipping a little from her tea. “Yes.” The way she says it, however, doesn’t make it look like she’s done. “And no. It’s… complicated.”

"Shiro told me you could remove it," he spits out, resentment turning his words into an accusation. He doesn't know if he's angry at her or at the dragon. Maybe, he's simply angry with himself.

Allura arches an eyebrow, elegant and composed, and yet the reprimand is clear in her movement. Her eyes shine with a glint of judgment.

"And I can. I can make you a potion now, I have all the ingredients I need," she rises, looking around. "Curse breaking is a complicated skill, especially when it's a curse as rooted as yours. I can make you something to mitigate the effects, but to break it? I can make you the bare potion, but you need to find the last ingredient and add it yourself."

Keith blinks, surprised. "Add it myself?"

She nods, moving towards a cupboard to the side of the room. "There are curses that can't be broken by outside forces, only someone who has... ties to the curse can gather the last ingredient to dispel it."

"So only someone who is cursed can gather it?" it seems complicated, but everything about this is complicated to Keith.

"Not necessarily. In your case, for example, anyone in your family could gather the ingredient. When a curse is of the fatal kind, someone who loves the cursed person could gather it. It requires intent," Allura explains, opening the cupboard and taking some ingredients. "Love, as it happens, is often the most effective way of breaking curses," she moves back to the table, spreading a number of vials on it. When she looks back at Keith, there is a smile on her lips. "Love, and a little bit of magic."

Keith watches her open vial after vial, sniff the inside and then nod. After a moment Coran enters the room with what looks like a cauldron and he puts it in front of her, almost as if Allura had asked him to bring it in. The man catches Keith's stare and he winks at him, joyful, before retreating back.

Allura immediately starts pouring ingredients into the cauldron, without even looking at Keith.

"This seems oddly specific," he can't help but point out. There are so many rules and stipulations that he had never heard of. Of course, he had never encountered someone who was cursed before.

"Magic is oddly specific, Keith; at least the magic that is worth anything," Allura explains to him, without looking away from her potion. "Magic has rules that help it grow. Outside of the rules, there's chaos."

Keith wants to ask more, inquire about the rules of magic and what it means to wield that much power, but there is no time for it. Maybe after... maybe.

"What is the last ingredient?" he asks then, rising. He can start going now and return with it, once Allura will have finished the rest of the potion.

He doesn't know if he has a map in his sack, and he hopes that Allura will have one to spare. Or maybe that she'll draw him one, to make sure he doesn't lose himself.

Allura, instead, keeps mixing ingredients. "You need the water of a magical lake," she recites, "powered by your desire to break the curse. If you mix it with this potion I'm giving you and drink it, you'll be free of it."

Sounds simple enough, Keith thinks, which is why he knows it won't be simple at all. Magic, after all, works like that.

"What's the catch?" he asks then, a little brusque.

Allura looks up at him, a little surprised. "There isn't one. That's literally all you need to do. You need to gather only enough for this potion. The magic only works once per person. If you want to make this potion again, someone else needs to reach into the lake."

She extends her hand over the cauldron and the same purple light shines from them. For a moment no one speaks. Allura is focused on her task, her eyes getting bluer by the second, and Keith is too transfixed to move.

It takes a minute for the glow to dissipate and for her to lower her hand. She breathes for a moment, almost as if she had to reconnect with the world around her and finally, she looks back at Keith and her eyes are normal again.

"You understand, then?" she asks him, her voice a calm lull.

It's a valid question, but Keith doesn't know how to answer. Does he understand? Enough, he supposes. There are still many things that he thinks he'll never grasp, but at least now he knows the direction he's going towards.

Directions. There is something, he realizes, that he still doesn't know.

"Where's the lake? And how long would it take me to reach it?" a couple of days won't matter, in the large scale of things, but he still hopes that it's close enough that he'll only have to walk for a couple of days.

He's tired of walking around.

Allura blinks, almost as if she's surprised by the question, and then she answers with frank candor: "I don't know."

It surprises Keith, almost a visceral punch to the gut. He must have heard wrong. "What do you mean?"

She huffs, going back to the potion and stirring whatever is now in the cauldron. "That I don't know where it is for you. It's a magical lake, it doesn't just stay in one place. Oriande moves as it pleases and only the ones that are supposed to enter it know where it is."

One step forward and two steps back. It doesn't matter how close Keith thinks he gets to the end of this ridiculous quest, it's never close enough. He wants to punch the table and rage. What use is this then? He will never find this magical lake.

"I don't understand why you're asking me, however. You should already know where it is," Allura says then, sounding a little put-off.

Keith will go insane soon.  "How can I know?" he can't help but ask, his voice rising with his temper. "It's a magical lake."

Allura doesn't seem intimidated by Keith's outburst and she starts pouring the potion from the cauldron to a bigger vial. "I know you know," she tells him without watching him. "If fate, or magic, brought you here to me, it's because you already know where you need to go."

"But I don't!" Keith finally screams, letting out all the frustration and anger. There is no lid on them anymore, and they spill out of him without his control. "I didn't even know I was coming here. I literally hunted down the harbinger of despair to find a way out of this curse. I don't know where it is."

For a moment they don't talk. Keith is panting hard and he realizes he got up in the midst of his rage. He should sit back down, but he doesn't want to.

Allura finally seems frazzled by him. For a moment she looks almost human. Almost normal. And then she blinks and the magic is back around her, making her something special. Making her something other.

"Harbinger of Misery," she repeats, looking back at the potion. "So, that's what you think of Shiro."

"That's not the point I was trying to make!" He can't help but point out, feeling almost drained.

Allura doesn't answer him, closing the vial with the potion and placing it on the table.

"I know. But you know, Keith. You just have to focus and let destiny bring you to it," she simply says. Keith doesn't need vague, he needs directions and a map. This is useless.

"And Shiro... don't judge him too quickly," she continues after a few seconds. "He's helping you, isn't he? Just like he does all of..."

"His other cursed things?" he can't help but ask, remembering the words of the two men from weeks ago.

He realizes then that it might be possible that this is all a lie. An elaborate ruse. Everyone he meets seems to be on the Dragon's side. Maybe the beast put this curse on him, and now these people were just covering for him.

Allura only nods after a couple of seconds. "I guess. His torturous cursed things that always end up whole again." She smiles when she says that, a much gentler and soft expression than the one she reserves Keith.

"The life of someone who is so attracted to cursed things and yet desires them to be free is not an easy one," she says, cryptically. It's clear she's talking about the dragon, but Keith doesn't know what that could mean. And he has yet to figure out where he's supposed to go.

He might have to start wandering again, researching tales of magic lakes and chasing after ghosts and myths again. He's tired of that life. He has been doing it for months now, and only recently he has found any kind of clue.

It's then that he realizes that it's not true. He had received a clue, at the beginning of his journey. Allura is right, he knows where the lake is.

"A clearing hid in a mountaintop, far east. The entrance will be hidden by a lion," he repeats and Allura looks at him with a smile.

"See? You knew where it was all along." Keith can't say anything to else.

Far East, he realizes, is farther away than he would have liked. It would take him almost a month of travel to arrive there on foot and he doesn't have the amount of food or coin needed for this expedition. Everything he had, he used to find the dragon.

Before he can say anything, Coran enters the room, bringing with him a bag. The smell of cooked meat immediately fills the room, and Keith's famished stomach groans in anticipation. He would have been embarrassed in any other circumstance, but the fresh reminder that he hasn't eaten since this morning soothes it.

"There is more in the other room, if you're done," Coran tells him, with a smile, "this is for travel."

Keith doesn't wait for any other explanation while he follows Coran to the kitchen where a plate filled with meat, fruit, and potatoes awaits him. He starts eating immediately and ignores the light laugh behind him.

He's too focused on his meal for a couple of minutes to register anything else, but when he's well on his way to clean the plate, Allura drops the potion besides him.

"It should keep for your journey," she assures him. "But tell Shiro not to get too distracted, fresh potions are much more effective than stale ones. The vial is magic, it should never break."

Keith pauses, with the fork close to his mouth. It appears that Allura, much like the two men that helped him in the village, have blind faith in the dragon. Nothing in their tone or their faces betray any hint of fear. He doesn't understand how it's possible with everything else he knows about him.

Allura must catch the doubt in his gaze because she squares her shoulders; a defensive position, he realizes. She's getting ready for a fight. It seems to be a good look on her. "I don't know how you came to know Shiro, but you should pay attention to what you believe."

"Everyone talks about him," he can't help but point out, "the stories I've heard while I was looking for him..." he stops, because he knows that some of them were nothing more than myths. The dragon had seemed to be a scapegoat, most of the time, something to be blamed in the face of terrible calamity.

While Keith believes that Shiro may not be responsible for any of the tragedy that follows him, he can't explain the dragon's presence at the center stage of so many catastrophes.

"It's not my story to tell," she explains, picking a little bit of fruit from Keith's plate, "but you should pay more attention."

Keith frowns, eating another bite of his meat. "It might be a moot point, he flew away once he left me in the city."

"Did he tell you he would be back?" she questions without missing a beat. Keith's silence is enough of an answer. "He will. As you put it, you're one of his cursed things." She stands up after that and walks out of the kitchen.

Keith feels like he has been dismissed.

When he has cleaned the plate in front of him, Coran passes him a bag full of meat and fruit. Some are for Shiro, he says, but the dragon probably won't accept it. Keith doesn't really understand but he nods all the same.

Allura doesn't come out to say goodbye to him, but Keith doesn't really feel offended. Her potion is safely situated on the top of the bag and he clutches it like a lifeline.

He leaves their house with his mind swimming in a sea of doubts and confusion. As long as he still puts a foot in front of the other, as long as he keeps going, everything will be okay.

 

It takes him less time to reach the city borders, this time, feeling stronger thanks to the cooked meal. The guards still have their gazes trained on him, clearly unsettled by his presence, and now Keith understands much more clearly why.

This curse hangs around him and poisons every interaction around him. He doesn't know why his father had been immune, or at least he hopes he was. He doesn't want to ruin the memories he has of him. Maybe blood has something to do with it, maybe his father's love was stronger than the curse itself.

When he reaches the clearing where he and Shiro separated, Keith thinks of Allura's confident tone; of hers he will that left no room for doubts.

Shiro is there, his black scales glistering in the night and Keith realizes that he had believed Allura. Maybe, that he never doubted Shiro in the first place. He doesn’t feel surprised at seeing the massive creature.

Shiro doesn't look surprised to see him either, and he calmly turns towards him. "Allura told me," he simply says.

The same way Shiro told Allura about Keith, probably, and he’s thankful that he doesn't have to explain anything to him. He doesn't know what he would have said, how to put into words the revelations from tonight. No one can love me and I don't even know why, he wants to say, how is that fair?

Instead, Shiro simply lowers himself to the ground, an invitation for Keith to mount him again. "You know where we need to go, right?" Shiro asks, but it's obvious he already knows the answer.

Keith nods anyway but doesn't move to get on the beast's back.

Did Shiro eat? Did he sleep? What did he do while Keith was talking to Allura? Is it his place to ask?

"Coran packed some meat," he says instead, pointing to the new bag. "He said some was for you."

Shiro blinks, his reptilian eyes peering at Keith's strangely. "I've eaten already," he replies and Keith doesn't know if he's telling the truth or not. It's disconcerting, he has always been good at figuring out the truth.

"Did you sleep?" he pushes then, letting his curiosity win.

It's obvious that Shiro didn't expect the question. Keith wonders what surprises him the most: that Keith found the courage to ask, or that maybe Keith even cared about the answer.

Shiro confusion doesn’t last long, however, and he shakes his massive head. "I'm good enough to fly," he replies, curt. "You don't have to worry."

Is he worried about that? A little bit, he realizes, but Keith can start to feel the tendril of exhaustion dancing in his mind and Shiro has flown all day. A part of him wonders if maybe he should be worried about the dragon more than his ability to fly.

Once again, however, Keith squashed these feelings. There is no point in wondering about these things; he only needs to reach his destination and after that nothing will tie him to Shiro anymore.

He nods then, finally climbing the dragon's back and putting himself between his shoulder blades. Shiro immediately flies up, gentle and swift. "If you want, you can sleep," the beast tells him.

It's probably true. With the way Shiro flies, there isn't that much of a risk of him falling off, but the idea of sleeping alone while the dragon continues to fly sits badly with him. He shakes his head, then, even if Shiro can't see him. He points towards the direction they need to fly towards: "We need to go east. We're looking for mountains."

Shiro pauses only a second before he nods and starts turning. "Our best bet is the mountain range in the south-east. It should take us a couple of days, hopefully."

"We need to stop for sleep," Keith points out again. Shiro doesn't remind him of his previous offer and he just keeps flying.

Keith doesn't know if he made the right decision, if Shiro appreciates Keith's silent support. There is a possibility that the other doesn't really care, but it's too late to change his mind.

They start flying towards their objective and Keith tries to stop thinking.

 

The night quickly fades, the first tinges of sunlight painting the sky of a myriad of colors. They've been flying for hours, and nothing has happened. Keith doesn't know why he's surprised, it makes sense.

There is a high probability that the rest of this journey will be like this, with nothing but open skies in front of them. If he wasn't traveling with a dragon, or if at least it was a dragon with a less ominous name, they could pass the time by talking.

Shiro, however, doesn't seem particularly open to conversation and Keith has never started a friendly conversation in his life. It's possible, after all, that Shiro himself is affected by the curse and he’s helping him out of some strange form of obligation.

It's possible that Shiro hates him like anyone else.

Keith is used to it by this point. And yet he feels strangely sad.

He's going to open the bag of food to take out something to eat when he feels Shiro twitch beneath him. It's an aborted movement, mostly a reflex, but it alarms Keith. "You o-" he starts, but a moment later Shiro twitches again, more violently this time, and he turns rashly.

Keith scrambles to hold on to the creature's neck, holding the bag close to his chest. "What are you doing?" he screams, but Shiro doesn't appear to hear him.

The dragon picks up speed, abandoning the calm pace they've been keeping until now. His movements are less fluid and there is some kind of desperation etched in every flap of his wings. A fever inside of him that forces him to go just a little faster.

"This is the wrong direction," Keith tries again, looking around, "stop!" Once again his words are completely ignored, but Keith finally sees something on the horizon. They seem to be headed towards a little village, further Nord. There doesn't seem to be anything special about it.

From a distance, it reminds Keith of his own village. It appears to be small and inhabited mostly by farmers and poor people trying to survive. It makes something inside of him ache, but it's not a hurt that Keith will soon forget.

It's only when they get closer that he sees what must have gotten Shiro's attention. At the edge of the village, inching closer and closer, is a group of barbarians. It's not unheard of for a small village to be raided, unfortunately, and most of the time it ends in a massacre.

Keith understands, then, what is going to happen. Despair, after all, follows Shiro like a close companion. Or maybe it's the opposite: it's Shiro that feverishly flies towards tragedies, answering a siren call.

Keith doesn't want to watch while this village gets destroyed, but he's not in control. On Shiro's back, he has no other choice but to follow what the dragon does.

He expects Shiro to hover in mid-air and observe. Maybe find perch somewhere, just like he had done with Keith's village, and watch the destruction.

Keith doesn't expect Shiro to roar, a deafening sound, and then descend towards the barbarians. Keith has only a moment to be surprised before Shiro lands and swipes at some of the men with his tail. The barbarians hit fly back like ragdolls and their companions stop, caught by surprise.

It's obvious that they are scared and Keith understands why. Shiro is imposing, bigger than any tales makes him out to be. Most people know of his story, but even without, Shiro is a frightening creature.

For a moment, the air itself stills. While the barbarians weigh their options and try to decide what would be the best strategy. Keith hopes they flee, but he has never been a lucky person.

A barbarian, dressed in better armor than the rest, screams and orders the others to attack. Shiro only growls and extends his wings.

It's obvious that Keith can't stay on his back—he would be a hindrance to Shiro and whatever the cause of the dragon's strange behavior, Keith wants to help the village. He slides down, leaving his and the food's bag on the ground.

He unsheathes his short sword from his belt and then dashes forward.

Shiro is handling most of the attackers himself. His claws and his tail do most of the work, but sometimes Keith sees him raise his silver wing and slash it towards his enemies sending them flying. There's no doubt in Keith's mind that there is magic flowing in those veins, but he can't focus enough to grasp what kind it is.

Keith isn't as strong as a dragon, but he's quicker and more agile. He attacks the one Shiro doesn't see, those who try to attack the dragon from his blind spot.

They work strangely well as a team.

Soon, the barbarians seem to realize that they are outmatched and the same man that had given the order to attack screams at them to retreat.

Keith watches them flee with satisfaction. They have saved the village and it feels good. He turns towards Shiro, a surprised smile on his face when he hears something zip through the air.

A second later Shiro roars, but this time the pain is clear in the sound. it's guttural and low and Keith feels it down in his gut.

The dragon stumbles forward and Keith turns towards the village, trying to see what happened. He only sees the villagers and a couple of mages, reunited to protect the village from the invasion. It takes him too long to realize what must have happened.

One of those mages must have attacked Shiro. Keith doesn't know why it comes as such a surprise, after all, he had done the exact same thing.

Maybe because, this time, Shiro actually helped. Maybe, because Keith is starting to believe that he doesn't deserve to be hunted down.

When a mage raises his hand to strike again, Keith runs forward, getting in front of Shiro. "Wait, the barbarians are gone!" he screams, loud enough for the villagers to hear him. "You're safe now."

"We'll never be safe as long as that monster is here," someone replies before the mage sends a bolt of electricity in their direction. Keith is too stunned to move, but a second later something drops in front of him, obscuring his view.

Shiro's silver wing stands protectively between Keith and the attack and he doesn’t see what kind of bolt it is, weaker than the one before if Shiro has no problem deflecting it. He hears the magic hit the wing, but Shiro doesn’t seem to feel the effect, this time. It’s a relief because Keith doesn’t think he could stand to hear Shiro’s pained roar once more.

A second later Shiro takes Keith in one of his paws and the food bag in the other and then starts flying away.

A couple of magic darts fly past them, but Shiro avoids them, flipping in the air, and soon they are too far away to be stricken down.

Keith is still in shock, trembling in Shiro's paw.

"Why did they attack you?" he wonders, out loud. He doesn't know why he asks when the answer is obvious.

"Because they always do," is Shiro's curt reply. It's true enough, Keith supposes, but there is something different about this time; something that Keith still struggles with.

"But you helped them this time," he says. The unlike the time with my village hangs in the air between them, unsaid.

"They never seem to care about that," Shiro cryptically replies.

They fly for a couple more seconds in silence before Shiro speaks again. "I'm sorry about the other bag. I couldn't pick it up."

It's a strange thing to apologize for when Keith is almost sure he's still alive only thanks to him. He has taken the bag with the potion in it, and Keith doesn't need anything else as much. Still, it brings other questions to Keith's mind.

"How did you know?" he wonders. The village hadn't been visible from when they were flying, Keith is sure. It's possible that dragons have better eyesight than humans, but the village had been too far away.

Shiro doesn't reply immediately and Keith starts to lose patience. "I think I deserve to know! What if it happens again? You weren't even responding to me!"

Only silence meets his words and Keith almost wants to take his dagger and plunge it into the dragon's paw, more out of frustration than anything else. Before he does it, however, Shiro finally replies. "I can feel things before they happen. Tragedies, catastrophes, natural disasters and… things. I feel them," he explains, his voice somber and calm. "Not... much before. Sometimes it's only enough for me to arrive moments before tragedy strikes. It has gotten me a bit of a reputation, you might have heard."

"How?" Keith can't help but wonder, fascinated by the idea. "By magic?"

"In a way. It's—— It doesn't matter what it is," Shiro quickly dismisses, in a way that makes it clear that it matters incredibly. "I try to help when I can, but there's not much I can do most of the time."

"My village..." Keith stops. He doesn't know what he wants to ask, doesn't even know if there is a question there. Maybe it's an accusation. A you didn't try to help there.

"There was nothing I could do to stop a volcano. But I had hoped... most villages evacuate when they see me," Shiro's voice is small, trembles a little by the end.

It's true, Keith realizes, they had decided to evacuate when Shiro had appeared. Their village was lost, but there were almost no casualties. It's startling to realize how wrong they all think of Shiro.

Even him, someone cursed to be unloved, has never tried to see beyond the myths. It had been easier to blame Shiro.

He should apologize, he realizes. For the attempt at Shiro's life, for everyone judging him so harshly. He opens his mouth to do just that when Shiro falters, dropping a couple of inches towards the ground. "What's happening?" Keith screams, holding onto Shiro's paw.

Shiro doesn't answer him, however, while they start to lose altitude. Keith looks up and he sees the dragon's wings painfully flapping in order to prevent them from crashing down into the ground and Shiro's face contorted by the pain.

Shiro's roar, full of distress, comes back in Keith's mind. He forgot that Shiro had been hit and now he realizes that it's more serious than what he had thought. "H-Hold on. Try to land gently."

Keith doesn't know why he says something so obvious, but he hopes that it might bring some kind of comfort to Shiro. That maybe he can find some kind of support in the notion that he isn't alone.

Whatever it is, Shiro seems to respond to his words. He grits his teeth and starts to glide towards the ground. Not as graceful as he would have done it before, but still better than just crashing down.

When they are close to the ground Shiro turns in the air so that Keith and the bag are protected by his body once they land. Keith wants to tell him there's no need, that it's not Keith who is hurt, but they violently reach the ground before he can.

The air gets knocked out of Keith's lungs when and for a moment he's unable to move. He aches all over but he knows he can't allow himself to stop. Nothing feels broken, and the pain is manageable. Shiro’s, on the other hand, probably isn’t.

Shiro's grip is lax around him and he manages to get out of his paw quickly. He slides off the dragon's body, thinking about reaching Shiro's face and trying to see if he’s awake when he spots Shiro's injury. There is a gash on his side, bigger than Keith's arm. It's bleeding profusely.

The panic that seems to grab him is staggering. He shouldn’t care, shouldn’t feel this much. And yet, he does.

"Shit," he says, running towards the wound. He presses his hands on it, trying to slow down the bleeding—it's all he knows about first aid—but the gash is too big for him to properly compress.

He curses under his breath and then runs to Shiro's face. The other seems to be passed out, but for a moment Keith thinks he might be dead already. "Shiro. Please, wake up. What the fuck."

Shiro doesn't stir and Keith starts to hyperventilate. He doesn't know why he's freaking out so much. All things considered, Shiro's death would be sad, but they don't even know each other. And yet... and yet.

"Please," he says again. It's a quiet wish, one he doesn't think will ever be granted. But Shiro stirs, a moan escaping him, and Keith realizes he’s almost crying.

He swipes the tears away quickly before he kneels beside Shiro's face. "You're hurt. Tell me what to do, can you heal yourself?" He doesn't know what kind of magic Shiro has if his wing would be able to do it, but he can hope.

Shiro's eye stares at Keith, grey, and cold. "You should go. Continue East," the dragon says, and Keith screams at him.

"What the fuck? No. There must be something we can do." He doesn't know what, after all, he doesn't know magic and he has nothing with them to help. They need a healer, that's what they need.

"There must be a village somewhere," he says, standing up. His hands are completely coated in Shiro's blood, as red and hot as Keith's anger. "I'll find one and bring a healer here. You need to stay alive until I come back." He remembers seeing one in the air. It was south of where they crash landed, hopefully not too distant.

"Keith..." Shiro rasps, but Keith shakes his head.

"Shut up," he screams, taking the bag with the food. Maybe there is something there he can exchange for someone's help. "Just live."

Shiro doesn't say anything for a second before he laughs, quietly, like there's a joke Keith isn't privy to.

"You don't even know what you're asking," the dragon says, but Keith can't stay and ask him what he means. He has a dragon to save, whenever he wants him to or not.

 

It takes him almost two hours to reach the village, and only because he has been running almost all the way. The possibility that Shiro is already dead is too dire to consider, so he pushes it away. He would never forgive himself if a moment of hesitation costs the dragon his life. So he runs forward.

The village is small, once Keith finally enters it, and he sees that he's not welcome. It might be the curse, but he's sure that his hands, completely red from Shiro’s blood, don't help either.

He sees a guard trek towards him, his hand on the helm of his sword. Keith is sure that he wouldn't hesitate to strike at the first sign of danger.

"What business do you have here, boy?" the guard asks, distrustful.

"I need a healer," he says immediately, raising his hands. "Not for me... a friend, in the forest. A couple of hours from here. Please."

"Why didn't you bring him with you?" the other questions. It's obvious that he doesn't still completely trust Keith or his words. It would be easier if Keith could be honest about Shiro, but if the villagers knew who needed the healer's help, he's sure that no one would lend a hand.

They might even send a butcher to make sure he died quickly.

"It would have taken too long. I have meat, I can exchange it as payment," he says, turning a little to show the bag. "I just need someone to come and help."

Keith can see the battle inside the man. It's obvious that he's not a cruel man, that a part of him wants to help Keith, but there is something stopping him from doing so. The guard looks at him for a second before he shakes his head. "I'm sorry. We don't have a healer and I think it would be better if you left."

It's the curse, it must be. What will he do, he wonders, if he doesn't manage to convince him? While Shiro's wound isn't directly his fault, Keith still feels responsible. If anyone else was here in Keith's place, the guard wouldn't even hesitate to call for help.

"Please," he tries again. He has never liked begging, and he's not used to asking for help, but he doesn't think there is any pride to be had in letting someone die. "Do you want to have someone's death on your conscience?"

It's the right thing to say because the guard shakes, and Keith manages to work around the curse. If it's not about Keith, but about someone else, there's nothing to stop the guard's compassion.

"I wasn't lying," the man says, guilty, "we don't have a healer. Not an official one... there is Lance, he's in training, but he's not..."

Keith doesn't care about what this Lance is not. Anyone is better than no one. "If he can help, in any way..."

The guard huffs and then nod, pointing him in the direction of a house on the other side of the street. "He lives there," the guard explains, allowing Keith to pass. "Just talk to him and then go."

Keith nods, relieved, and sprints. The guard's eyes are still on him, but he doesn't care about that. Once he reaches the house he pounds on it two times, smearing it with blood. He doesn't have time to feel bad about that.

A boy opens the door, possibly younger than Keith himself—or maybe he just looks younger because he hasn't seen the horror Keith has. Still, the boy looks startled to see someone covered in blood knocking at his door.

"I need a healer," Keith repeats, frantically. "Someone is dying in the woods."

The urgency of the situation only makes the boy panic, it seems, and he turns around to look inside the house. Another boy stands there, looking a little caught off guard. Keith doesn't know which one of them is Lance and frankly doesn't care.

"Blaytz isn't here," the first boy says after a second. Keith doesn't know if this Blaytz and Lance are the same person, but he's ready to scream.

"I just need a healer. Anyone!"

The other man, inside the house, walks towards them. "We have some potions," he tells the first man. "I mean... this sounds kind of urgent."

The first man, still holding the door, turns towards Keith. "Do you think potions could cut it?"

"I don't know!" Keith replies, frustrated, "I'm not a healer!"
"Well, officially neither am I! So lose the attitude, mullet!" The other replies, a little hysterically. But Keith stops, thinking about the wording.

"Officially," he repeats. The man, who must be the one the guard told him about, nods.

"Yeah. I'm in training, but lately my magic has been acting up and I... I don't know if I..." he stops talking, looking contrite.

Keith doesn't have time for his crisis either.

"I can pay. I have meat and fruit. I just... he's dying." He knows his voice comes out pleading, but he doesn't care. Lance looks inside at the other man but Keith can't see what kind of glance they are exchanging.

Then, Lance nods. "Fine. We'll come and bring the potions," he says and then he points towards Keith, "but I don't like you."

Keith almost laughs. Join the club.

 

As it happens, Lance and Hunk, the other man, have a cart they can use to reach Shiro much faster. They are already fifteen minutes out of the city when Lance asks him to describe Shiro's injuries.

Keith does so, trying to be as accurate as possible without revealing the patient's real identity. He knows that it will be impossible to keep the secret once they see him, but he hopes that having a dragon dying in front of them will stop them from leaving.

"Okay," Lance's voice trembles a little and then he looks at Keith. "I don't know if the potions will cut it, but they should make him feel better. Then maybe we can bring him to someone who can heal him."

"Why can't you?" he wonders. Lance closes off, frowning.

"Because my magic isn't working, okay? It's why I'm not with my mentor right now." Perfect, Keith thinks, he found the one healer without magic.

Still, he turns towards Hunk. "And you?"

The other blinks, surprised, before shaking his head. "Oh. Oh no. I'm not a healer. I'm not even much of a mage. I'm a cook, but I'm good with potions."

Perfect. Okay. Keith inhales for a second, trying to calm himself. If everything goes to hell, he thinks, he can just take the potions from them and try to find help from Shiro somewhere else. This might not have been useless.

They manage to reach Shiro again following the trail of blood that Keith left on his way to the village. And, unfortunately, once they reach the clearing where Shiro's body is laid out, there is no way for Keith to hide the truth anymore.

He jumps out of the cart and reaches the dragon's body. Shiro is breathing heavily but still breathing.

"That's a dragon," Lance says, almost out of breath.

"Forget that," Hunk says, his voice almost hysterical. "That's the dragon! You know, the one that brings despair wherever he goes?"

He turns towards them and he sees them still in the cart, looking at him like they are ready to bolt.

Keith knew they would react like that. "He needs help. And he..." he stops before refuting Hunk's words. Even with Shiro's hurried explanation, Keith doesn't understand enough to explain to them the truth about the dragon. It would be pointless anyway.

They don't trust him, no one ever does, and he has never much cared about being trusted. Why should this time be different?

He takes his dagger out of his sheath and points it at the two of them, ready to throw it. "Just help him," he tells them. "Give me the potions if there is nothing else you can do. We'll go away."

"You—? Do you realize what he is?" Hunk wonders looking at Keith and then at the dagger, like he can't believe what is happening.

"Yes," Keith only replies, taking a step towards them. "This doesn't need to become ugly."

"You're the one that got out the weapon!" Lance points out, "I knew we shouldn't have come."

"He's still dying!" Keith reminded them. "I have no other choice!"  Before he can take another step towards them and maybe try to stop them before they bolt, Shiro's tail slides in front of him, stopping him.

"Keith," the dragon says, his voice deep with hurt and exhaustion, "no."

Lance and Hunk seem rooted to the spot, incredulity coloring their face. It's obvious they hadn't expected Shiro to talk. Keith had felt the same that first day.

"We— you need the potion. And they—" he tries, but Shiro's tail pushes him back. Keith can't do anything but comply.

"It's okay," he says, "you can't force them."

Keith wants to scream at him, but instead, he takes the frustration and directs it towards the other two men. "So you'll just let him die? Because he's a dragon? What kind of healer are you?"

"I'm in training!" Lance repeats, but it's obvious that he's hesitating. He looks down at Hunk and the two of them just stare at each other for a couple of seconds before they both descend from the cart. "Why is it always us?" Lance mutters.

Hunk takes the potions from his bag and hurries towards them, while Lance immediately goes towards the wound.

Keith finally breathes, feeling a little better, and walks towards Hunk. The other man is hesitating in front of Shiro, evidently scared of getting too close to his mouth.

"Can you really breathe fire? Are you going to cook me?" Keith hears him ask Shiro, while the dragon simply looks at him.

Keith huffs and takes one of the potions from Hunk's hands. "I just have to give it to him?"

Hunk looks surprised but he simply nods. "I mean, they are designed to help humans, I don't know if they'll work but... hopefully giving all of them to him will help."

Keith nods and, together, they start feeding all the potions to Shiro. It's awkward because of the angle and how big Shiro's mouth is, and some of the liquid falls to the ground, but they are keeping a good pace when they hear Lance curse.

They all startle, surprised, when Lance continues. "I can't. My magic isn't strong enough and I don't know why."

Keith leaves the last potion to Hunk to reach on the other side of Shiro and see Lance's progress. Shiro's wound looks almost exactly like the last time Keith looked at it. It's obvious that Lance isn't having any luck in closing it, but it appears to be bleeding less, maybe thanks to the potions.

Lance notices Keith approaching and he glares at him. "Yeah, I can't do it, I'm sorry. What are you going to do, gut me with your dagger?" Keith, who doesn't really want to do that, shakes his head, but Lance continues anyway. "I told you I couldn't, but you had to kidnap up and bring us here! But I can't do it. I'm a failure, you can say it! What is a healer without magic? I--"

Lance stops looking at something behind Keith. Keith turns to see Shiro looking in their direction. Only one of his eyes is open, but he seems to be focused on Lance.

"Great," Lance says, shaking, "now the dragon is going to eat me."

Keith scoffs, knowing well that, even if he wanted to, Shiro was in no shape to eat anyone. But Shiro simply continues to stare at Lance.

"You have something on your neck," Shiro finally says. Lance blinks, surprised, and then looks back at himself.

"How did you?" he wonders, while he reveals a little pendant from under his clothes. There is nothing strange about the pendant. It has a purple stone encased in a silver casing. Keith would never put it on.

"It's cursed," the dragon explains, with a huff. "Give it to me."

"What? No! Nyma gave it to me!" Lance protests, holding the pendant in his hands. "Well, I paid for it. And she said it was special, that it would help me complete my training faster."

"Let me guess. And then your magic disappeared?" Keith asked, sarcastically. Lance blinked twice.

"No. I lost my magic two months after she gave this to me. I'm not stupid," he says.

"It's a slow acting curse," Shiro explains, "it poisons the blood of the person who holds it. It starts with his magic, then it's entire essence. In a couple of months, you'll be dead."

Lance looks at Shiro and then at the pendant and for a second, he looks genuinely scared. He removes it from his neck and looks at it. "So I should... destroy it?"

"No," Shiro replies, with a little growl. "Give it to me. I'm immune to most curses' effect."

Keith blinks and then turns to look at Shiro, digesting this new information. If dragons are immune to curses, does it mean that Shiro wasn't influenced by Keith's curse?

Lance complies with Shiro, putting the necklace in the palm of Shiro's paws and then looking back at the gash on his side. He concentrates for a moment and Keith sees his palm glow with the same energy that he saw in Allura. Unlike hers, his palm shines blue.

It seems to be working for a couple of seconds before Lance reopens his eyes and everything fades. "No, it's the same as before," he tells them with an annoyed huff.

"The effects won't disappear immediately," Shiro scolds him, almost as if he was talking to a child.

"You're bleeding out right now," Hunk points out, rather unhelpfully.

Lance tries again, and then once more. At one point he looks like he's ready to explode. "I can't do it. Maybe you're wrong, that thing isn't cursed and I'm just... not cut for this."

No one says anything for a second before Shiro huffs and opens his paw where the necklace lies. "Keith, take this away from me and destroy it."

Considering Shiro's vehemently refusing to do the exact same thing a couple of minutes before, Keith is surprised by the request, but he doesn't hesitate to do as he's told. The moment he takes the pendant, he sees Shiro make an aborted movement to take it back and then force himself to stay still.

It's rather strange, but Keith walks for a couple of minutes before dropping the item on the ground and stomping on it as hard as he can. It doesn't break and Keith tries another couple of times, without any result. He realizes that, as a magical item, it might be protected and so he takes his dagger and smashes it onto the object.

Finally the pendant cracks and then breaks, creating a small explosion. Behind him, Lance exhales.

Keith turns immediately, seeing Lance's body completely engulfed in the blue light. The healer puts his hands on Shiro's wound and soon the light starts to travel to the dragon's scales, lighting them up.

Lance pushes a little more and the gash starts to close itself, the healing magic working into repairing the dragon's flesh. After a couple of minutes, it's like the wound was never there at all.

The light fades from Shiro's wound and Lance's body and the mage gasps, taking a step back. He looks at Shiro's side, transfixed and then he smiles. "I did it. I did it! My magic is back!"

Lance's joy is palpable in the air and Hunk rushes to his friend to high five him. Keith, in the meantime, rushes to Shiro. The dragon is slowly moving, trying to stand up on his four legs. He's still too tired, however, and he only manages to stay up for a couple of seconds before he collapses back down.

"Don't strain yourself," Keith reprimands him, touching his neck. Shiro watches him curiously at the touch, but he also seems to melt under it, almost as if Keith's presence was soothing him.

"Yeah, mullet is right," Lance says, "I fixed the damage, but you lost a lot of blood. It's a miracle you're even still alive."

"Killing a dragon isn't easy," Shiro reassures him with a grin that's all teeth. Lance and Hunk seem unsettled by the sight, but Keith can only think that this is the first time he has seen Shiro so unguarded.

"Okay, the creepy dragon is fine. Hunk and I are possibly cursed for all eternity," Lance recaps with a sigh, "but my magic is back. So, pros and cons."

"We need to go back to the village," Hunk says, eyeing their cart, "people will be wondering where we are." He looks at Keith with a little bit of apprehension but Keith doesn't care about stopping them now.

They did what he wanted them to do.

Lance, however, isn't listening to them. He seems to be looking at Shiro's silver wing, his eyes unfocused. Hunk takes his arm and shakes him a little. "Lance? Did you hear what I said?"

The other blinks, almost as if he's waking up and then nods. "Yeah. Sure. We'll be back tomorrow. Dragon, you really shouldn't move for a while, and I would like to look at the wound again, to be sure everything is fine."

Keith doesn't think it's necessary, but he's not a healer. Shiro, however, seems to agree with his thoughts. "There is no need," the dragon reassures the healer, "I'm sure I'll be as good as new tomorrow."

"I insist," Lance pressures, "and you quite literally owe me your life, so you have to listen to me."

Shiro nods, a little surprised, and Lance seems content with it.

Keith watches the cart with the two humans ride away and then opens their food bag, taking some meat and fruit - they are still miraculously fresh and he thinks that the bag might be magic.

"Well, we only have to wait," he says and Shiro nods.

Keith hesitates only a second before he goes to look for something to make a fire.

 

The little fire that Keith manages to make isn't big enough to warm every part of Shiro, but Keith makes it close enough to where Shiro's wound was to maybe help keep that part protected from the night air.

It might be stupid, but he thinks that dragons —like all lizards—appreciate a little bit of warmth. When Shiro doesn't protest, Keith decides he's right. Still, the only way for Keith to enjoy the fire as well is to sit with his back to Shiro's body. He hesitates for a while before Shiro reaches for him with a claw and forces him to sit between Shiro and the fire.

The dragon's scales are hard against Keith's back, but Shiro's rhythmic breathing helps him relax. All in all, it's not a bad place to be.

Shiro eats his meat raw, while Keith spends some time cooking it. They have an entire night ahead of them and Keith knows that there are too many questions he needs answers to. This time, he won't let them go.

"Why didn't you destroy the pendant immediately?" he wonders, hoping that Shiro will answer him.

There is a hitch in the other's breathing, a slight hesitation as if Keith's question has surprised him. When the dragon replies, he seems to be truthful: "I was hurt."

It's not exactly the answer Keith expects. "Exactly, you must have known that destroying it would have given Lance his magic back."

Shiro nods, confirming Keith's suspicion. "I was hurt and delirious, I wanted the comfort."

"The comfort of a cursed pendant?" he asks, incredulous and Shiro just shrugs.

"The comfort of my hoard," Shiro says like it should be obvious.

Keith has seen Shiro's hoard and the image of it it's still clear in his mind. The mountain of mismatched items and creepy rocks that Keith had almost touched that first day. Why would the necklace be part of the hoard?

Shiro lets him stew in it for a minute before he huffs. "My hoard is made of cursed items,"  the dragon explains, "that and rocks from the sites where tragedies happen. Those I can't prevent."

Keith's breath stops in his throat. A lot of what he knew starts to make sense now. Shiro's presence at every tragedy and calamity, the strange way he had behaved when they had saved the village.

Something that belongs in his hoard is practically impossible to resist for a dragon. Once they feel it or see it, the dragon must have them for their hoard.

His cursed things Remdak said, and now Keith understands what he meant.

"I'm part of your hoard," he says, surprised.

Shiro huffs, bringing his face closer to Keith's body. "Yes. I could tell you were cursed, the first day, because I wanted to take you with me."

"I just could have been an unlucky person," Keith jokes and Shiro guffaws beside him, amused.  "But you're helping me break my curse," he realizes, after a few seconds, "why?"

"Cursed items are one thing," Shiro immediately replies, "and there's nothing I can do about... the other things. But people? I don't want to have a hoard of unhappy persons."

Keith doesn't know why he asks the next questions and regrets it the moment it leaves his mouth: "What would you like your hoard to be?"

Shiro doesn't answer immediately and Keith remains silent, watching the fire flicker in front of them. Finally, Shiro's deep voice says "Nothing I can have." Keith feels chastised enough and nods.

After a few minutes of silence, however, Keith can't stay silent anymore. "You said dragons are immune to curses?"

"Most curses," Shiro corrects him, with a little sad smile. "We're beings made of magic, our scales are special. The only curses that can harm us are those created for us."

"What do you mean?" Keith wonders, interested.

"Magic," Shiro explains, "is about rules. And intent." Keith nods, remembering what Allura told him. "We're immune to most of the curses because their intent is not to harm us specifically. Our magic is older and stronger than most around, it's what protects us."

"But if you're the direct target..." Keith doesn't finish his thought and Shiro looks at him. There is a strange glint in his eyes, something dark and dangerous. Keith wants to push, follow that light wherever it will take him, but he stays silent.

"Intent makes magic stronger. Even us dragons have to follow the rules," Shiro simply explains. "So I'm immune to your curse, or the one on the necklace. But like today's hit: if someone wants to harm me, it's not impossible."

The confirmation that Shiro doesn't feel the pull of Keith's curse, that there is no magic influencing Shiro's mind towards Keith, it's a strange relief. "But you still didn't trust me."

"You tried to kill me," Shiro reminds him, with an amused huff. Keith has to concede the point.

"And now? If I'm part of your hoard, do you find comfort in my presence?" he wonders out loud. Shiro doesn't reply, but he moves his tail, a clear sign of awkwardness. Keith takes it as the answer he needs.

He closes his eyes, relaxing against the dragon's side. With the crackling of the fire in front of him, Shiro's rhythmic heartbeat behind him, and the rumors of the forest around him, Keith finally relaxes.

He's a dragon's hoard. There are probably worst things in the world.

 

"Everything is in order. I'd say your wound is completely healed," Lance tells them with a smile, smacking Shiro's side.

"I told you yesterday," Shiro reminds the healer, but there is no heat in his voice. Your magic talent is promising, you'll be a great healer in the future."

"I'm a great healer now!" Lance immediately replies, but it's obvious that he's happy about the praise.

Keith stops paying attention to them and turns towards Hunk, where the other is removing a couple of bags from their cart. "What is that?" he asks, and Hunk looks taken by surprise. He glances at Lance, nervously.

Lance turns towards them and shrugs. "We were thinking of coming with you guys. I need to thank Shiro for the help, and until Blaytz comes to the village, there's nothing for me to learn there."

"I can't let Lance go alone. I promised his mum. And his sister. And his second sister. And his brother. And..."

"We get it, Hunk!" Lance interrupts him, embarrassed, "you spend too much time talking with my family, I swear."

Shiro looks at them and doesn't seem entirely convinced. Keith agrees. "You don't even know what we're doing. We're not just traveling around."

"Then we'll follow you around for a while," Lance says, brushing off Keith's concerns. "If Shiro doesn't want to fly us around we can follow you with the cart."

"That's not the problem..." Shiro starts to say, but Hunk stops in front of the dragon to show him all the food he has brought for them.

Before Keith can say anything else, Lance walks up to him and motions for Keith to take some steps back. Intrigued, Keith follows Lance away while, apparently, Hunk distracts Shiro.

"What's going on?" he asks when the other has directed them far enough.

"I don't know what's your plan," Lance immediately say, turning around and looking directly at Keith, "but there's something wrong with Shiro's wing."

Keith can only blink, surprised by Lance's directness. Keith isn't surprised to know that there is something wrong with Shiro's wing, but the knowledge sits badly with him all the same.

"You didn't know," Lance summarizes, frowning, "I hoped you would. Yesterday I looked at it and I... there is something seriously messed up about it. It looks like death."

"Shiro is alive," Keith can't help but point out, feeling a little hysterical. Only yesterday Keith had made sure of that.

"Yes," Lance agrees, "which is why it was so strange. I just... I want to keep an eye on it. He helped me, it just seems fair."

While Keith might not be happy about the idea of other people joining this expedition, he agrees that they might be useful. And what Lance is saying worries him.

"Fine," he concedes in the end. "And thank you."

Lance seems taken aback for a moment before he shakes himself. "I'm not doing this for you. I really don't like you. There's... something. I don't know."

"Yeah. I know," Keith simply acknowledges, turning around.

Lance sputters and follows him. "Don't ignore me! And by the way what are you guys doing? If we're joining you we deserve to know I think."

Keith smiles, looking back at the other. "We're going to break my curse," he says and enjoys the look of incredulity on the other's face.

His worry over Shiro's wing is an overbearing presence in his mind, corrupting his every thought. Keith doesn't know why or when he became so worried about the dragon. He hopes that it's only a side effect of being part of his hoard and that it will war off.

Something tells him, however, that that's not it at all.

 

With Lance and Hunk joining them, Shiro can't fly for long stretches of time like before. They stop more frequently, especially because Hunk likes cooking food and doesn't allow them to skip any meal.

Traveling with them is completely different from traveling alone.

Every day Lance tries to understand what's wrong with Shiro's wing without raising any suspicion from the dragon, and every morning he fails.

Every night Keith and Shiro lie awake, with Keith's back resting on the dragon's side for warmth. Sometimes they talk, sometimes they just sit in silence.

Knowing that Shiro isn't conditioned by the curse, that every interaction between them is genuine, makes them incredibly valuable for Keith. He holds every conversation close and tries to cherish the memory.

One day, he'll have many people to talk to, once he breaks this curse. But he thinks he would still like to talk to Shiro.

Sometimes, however, Keith misses traveling with just the dragon. Today is one of those days.

"We've been traveling non-stop for three days!" Lance reminds them, sighing. "Can't we stop somewhere?"

"We do have to replenish our food," Hunk points out, helpfully.

"We've been stopping every day to eat and sleep," Keith points out, frowning.

"I mean some hours of relax! Just... doing nothing. maybe visiting a village. Please, Shiro!" Lance pleads, touching Shiro's scales.

The dragon huffs under them. Keith thinks he might be annoyed by their discussion and Lance's touch.

"I think we should keep moving," Keith disagrees. "We're already wasting too much time. We can't just stop at a random village. Think about Shiro!"

No one talks anymore, knowing full well what Keith means. Shiro can't be seen by other people and it would be impossible to bring him close to any village. The memory of the mages attacking them is still too clear in Keith's mind.

"It's okay," Shiro says, after a few seconds. "I know where we could go. We could rest there, you could sleep inside a house." He hesitates, but there is something warm in his voice. "it's somewhere safe."

Keith is too surprised to object while Lance and Hulk cheer. Shiro changes course and turns a little toward north.

"What do you mean it's safe?" he wonders, curious beyond belief.

He knows that there are people who aren't scared of Shiro—he has met at least three—but to think that an entire village would be on his side... it's difficult to believe.

"They are friends," Shiro simply replies, "I haven't seen them in a while and it's time that I go and meet them. You'll like them."

Keith wants to ask more, but it's obvious that Shiro is done talking.

They fly in silence for another hour before Shiro starts to descend. Keith looks down, noticing a village just under them and a little house on top of a hill. It seems that Shiro is going towards it. There is no hesitation while he glides and Keith is intrigued.

It's obvious that Shiro feels safe here and it's a stark contrast to what he seems to feel most of the time.

Shiro lands a little further away from the house, but before they have even managed to dislodge from Shiro's back, people are rushing out of the building. Two people are running towards them, excitedly, while the other two remain at the door of the house.

"Shiro! You're here!" the smaller of the two says when they are close enough. They are smiling, looking at the dragon without a hint of worry or fear.

"Yeah, man, I thought we agreed that you were going to drop by more frequently. Dad was worried," the other say, but he doesn't really look annoyed or angry. He then turns towards them with a smile. "You also brought guests. That's unusual."

"We're traveling to the mountain range in the south," Shiro explains, "but they wanted to rest. I thought this would be a good place."

"Of course it is," the smaller of the two says, turning towards them. "I'm Pidge, this is my brother Matt. Shiro is part of the family so I'm sure mom and dad won't have any problem with fixing a spare room for you guys."

"You mean we can sleep indoors?" Lance wonders out loud. He even sniffles at the end, the drama queen.

Matt laughs, nodding. "I hear you. Once we traveled to this guy's house," Matt says, pointing towards Shiro, "and it was weeks of travel. We had to sleep outside for so long. It was torture."

"You didn't have to," Shiro says, gently. There is something soft and a little vulnerable in his tone.

It's Pidge that replies, sounding annoyed. "Of course we had to, you were being a stubborn idiot."

"Yeah, that's the best description for Shiro, isn't it?" Matt asks them with a smile. They all nod, but Keith can't help but think that he doesn't know. They have been getting closer thanks to their late night talks, but there is so much he still doesn't know about Shiro. This only serves as a reminder.

He realizes after a couple of seconds that there is something else that's strange about this interaction. The two doesn't seem to be acting hostile towards Keith. "You don't hate me," he blurts out, too surprised to stop himself.

Both Pidge and Matt look at him strangely while Hunk, behind him, points out We don't hate you either... you're just hard to like?.

Shiro huffs, nodding in Keith's direction. "The Holt family is protected," he explains and not explains at the same time. What does that mean? How can they be protected? When Shiro sees the confusion in Keith's eyes he adds, rather unhelpfully, "sacrifice magic. A sacrifice freely given it's one of the strongest types of protection magic."

Before he can ask anything more, Matt claps his hands. "This is getting deep. Come on, Shiro, mom, and dad want to see you. Let's not keep them waiting." Then he stops and takes something from his pocket. "Oh, wait before I forget," he extends some sort of statue towards Shiro and smiles, proudly. "A gift."

The dragon smiles and extends one of his two paws towards it, picking it up between his two claws. It appears to be a wooden statue of a dragon. It seems to mean something deeper between the two of them and even Pidge smiles.

"I have one as well, but it's in my room. Which is why we should go towards the house!" Pidge points out and Matt laughs, walking back towards his house.

Shiro nods, following Matt back to the house. Hunk and Lance follow them closely behind, but Keith notices that Pidge is staring at Keith. Maybe not as immune as Shiro thought.

A second later even Pidge turns and walks towards the house. Keith can't do anything else but follow.

 

The Holts welcome them with open arms. They set up a room inside for them all. They don't seem to be bothered by their sudden arrival and berate Shiro because he doesn't come enough.  Shiro relaxed stance speaks of familiarity, of a discussion they probably had many times before.

This is the first time, Keith realizes, that he sees people so open with Shiro. There is obviously history between them—Matt keeps telling them that Shiro is an honorary member of the family—and that the Holt trust the dragon completely.

It's a strange sight, seeing Shiro interact so casually with other people.

They eat outside so they can eat near Shiro—who procured his own dinner, as it happens—and it's a surreal affair.

Keith isn't sure why this situation is so strange to him, but the more he sees the Holt interact with Shiro, the stranger he feels. It makes him wonder how many opportunities Shiro has to be this unguarded, to be treated with this kind of love.

He remembers the hate in the eyes of the villagers that had attacked them. He remembers how angry his own townspeople had been towards Shiro. How furious Keith himself had felt.

It's shame, he realizes, the feeling that festers in his gut.

The middle of dinner is not the best place to have a crisis, he thinks. Keith leaves the table, mumbling that he needs to take something from his bag and run inside the house. It's not far enough to escape his guilt, but at least it gives him enough privacy to do it in private.

To keep up appearance he walks towards the bedroom the Holt prepared for them. It's at the end of the hall, past Matt's and Pidge's room and another room that has been closed all this time. Once he reaches his own bed he sits on it and tries to calm down.

Until a couple of days ago, he rationalizes, he didn't know Shiro. Had no reason to suspect that the stories about him were wrong. While he may be ashamed now about his actions, he should put them behind him.

And yet he can't.

He takes a couple of minutes, regulating his breathing in hopes of calming down when he hears someone knocking at the door. He looks up, startled, surprised to see Pidge looking at him.

"Uhm. I was..." Keith stops, unable to come up with a convincing lie.

Pidge doesn't seem interested anyway. "You're not snooping," she informs him, and Keith blinks, surprised.

"I. No. Why would——" he tries, but Pidge doesn't let him finish. She advances towards him, a dangerous glint in her eyes.

"I hoped you were snooping. Why aren't you?" Why aren't you asking more questions?" she asks him, walking closer to him. Her words sound like an attack; like Keith is failing some kind of test. He's extremely confused.

"What are you talking about? I'm not going to snoop around in other people's homes!" he defends himself, standing up. He needs to escape this strange situation and go back to the table.

"You're cursed, aren't you?" Pidge presses on. They hadn't told the Holts about their mission and Pidge's statement is enough to stop Keith. Did Shiro tell her? "Shiro has told us about the people he helps, but he has never brought one here. So why aren't you trying to discover more?"

Keith is utterly lost. It's obvious that there is history between Shiro and this family; a history that might help Keith figure out Shiro better, but he doesn't want to discover it by accident. He doesn't want to take something that Shiro doesn't want him to have.

"If I was the type of person to do that, Shiro wouldn't have brought me here," he responds bluffing a confidence he doesn't have. He's not sure why Shiro brought them there, in a place where he seems to have no walls. A sign of trust, maybe, or maybe something else entirely.

Pidge looks at him for a second before she nods and takes his arm. "Maybe, but I'm tired of this," she tells him, dragging him out of the room. She's strong, stronger than Keith would have given her credit for, and she doesn't seem inclined to head Keith's protests.

"What are you doing?" he asks, but Pidge drags him to the closed room and opens it without saying anything else.

Keith briefly looks inside, not really registering what he's seeing before he turns towards Pidge to tell her to let go. He does a double take, however, looking back at the room.

He recognizes the disposition of the furniture. He recognizes the bed or the desk. It's unsettling how similar this room is to the one Keith had slept in at Shiro's lair.

"Do you know whose room this was?" Pidge asks him and Keith knows, but it's impossible. Shiro's dragon body would never fit in a room like this.

"No," he replies, honestly. It can't be Shiro's and while it might be of someone that Shiro cared about, Keith doesn't have any clue who.

Pidge shakes her head, letting go of Keith's arm and taking a step inside the room. "Yes you do," she tells him, confident and angry, "it's just that you didn't do your homework."

"I..." he starts, but she stops him immediately.

"You went to Shiro's castle. I know he has another room just like this. He brought everything from here," she says, touching the bed. She looks sad, tired. "I only saw it once. It wasn't easy for him to make it look similar, he kept crushing the furniture."

Keith can almost see it: Shiro putting every single piece in the right place, clumsy with his big paws but desperate to get it right. It makes something ache inside it.

"But Shiro is a dragon," he protests, trying to make sense of things.

"Normal dragons can turn into humans, didn't you know that?" She asks him. It's obvious he didn't, and she doesn't expect an answer.

"Shiro can turn into a human?" He needs to ask it out loud, to have her confirm it. It's a strange concept. How would Shiro look?

Pidge turns towards him, her eyes hard. Before she even opens her mouth, Keith already knows that he doesn't want to hear it. Whatever it will be, it will be too painful for him to bear.

"Not anymore," she says, with a sad smile, "but once."

"What happened?" it might not be his place to ask, but Pidge decided to bring him here. She showed him this, and now he needs to know more. He needs to know everything.

Pidge hesitates, almost as if she now realizes the consequences of her action. Keith has known her for less than a day, and he's not surprised when she overcomes her doubts quickly. She doesn't seem like someone who lets anything stop her.

"I don't know everything, and some it's not my place to say, but he protected us," she says with a sad smile. "They came here for him, but if it wasn't for us, he would have gotten away."

"Who are they?" he asks, taking a step closer.

There is no threat, obviously, but his instincts are still flaring with the need to stay on alert.

Pidge stays silent for a couple of minutes before she turns towards the only window in the room. "How much do you know about dragons?" she asks, almost out of nowhere. She continues before Keith can even come up with an answer. "Nothing, obviously, you didn't even know they could turn human."

She huffs, once again disappointed in Keith's lack of research. "Dragon's scales," Pidge explains to him, "are full of beneficial properties if treated in particular ways. They are powerful creatures, old, and magic flows freely in their veins. For a mage..."

"Having dragon scales would be invaluable," he guesses. Most people knew of this, even if they didn’t know much else. Pidge doesn't need to confirm it.

She still nods, walking to the bed and sitting on it. "I don't know how they discovered that Shiro was here," she says, with a sigh, "we certainly didn't tell anyone, and the village loved him. He's been living here for years, and we all knew we needed to keep him a secret. I don't know how the druids found out, but they did."

It's the second time that Keith hears this name, and his blood freezes in his veins.

"They were too many and no one here is really a fighter. We know some magic, but nothing too crazy. They knew Shiro would have fled so they took us as hostages." She stops and Keith can already guess the end of that particular story.

Shiro surrendered himself, he's sure, to protect them. The same Shiro that fought off a barbarian attack, knowing full well that the village would still hate him.

Pidge watches him silently for a couple of seconds before she smiles at him, almost as if she could read his mind. "I don't know what they did to him. He came back one year later and he was hurt, but human. He started living with us, but every day he got worse. Three months later he turned into a dragon and never reverted back."

It feels wrong to hear this from someone who isn't Shiro, but a part of him is grateful to hear it nonetheless. "Three months later. What changed?"

"His wing," Pidge replies immediately. Is it really a surprise? Lance told him that there was something wrong with Shiro's silver wing. It only makes sense. "Before, Shiro was a black dragon. Completely black."

Keith understands what she's trying to tell him. There had been no silver veins on his wing, no eery fingers expanding from the tip of his wings towards his heart.

It's hot in the room, but Keith still shivers.

"Why are you telling me this?" he asks, in the end.

Pidge doesn't answer for a couple of seconds before smiling, sadly. "He doesn't talk to us. He thinks he doesn't deserve to live with us. Because of his hoard, because of what he did to escape probably. Because he thinks he put us in danger."

"You want to help him," he summarizes and Pidge smiles at him. There is nothing happy in her smile.

"You should ask him about why we have gifts for him. I think that's the part he should tell you himself."

Keith nods, puzzled but intrigued. He would leave it at that, but there is still something else he needs to know. A question that only Pidge can answer.

"Why did you tell me?" he wonders out loud. "Why not Lance? Or Hunk? Or all of us together. Why just me?"

"Because you're cursed," she replies immediately like it's obvious, "and that makes you his."

One of his cursed things, Keith remembers.

He should be haunted by the idea of being owned, but there is something that settles in his soul, solid and safe. Dependable. His.

He nods in acknowledgment and walks away.

 

That night, while everyone else is asleep, Keith sneaks out of his bed.

He's not sure what he'll say to Shiro, how to ask everything he needs to ask. He has spent all night thinking about how to best broach the subject, but there is no right way.

What Keith has is too big of a revelation, too dark of a secret. He needs to know more, but he knows that he shouldn't. He has Pidge's words to make him go forward.

She wants him to know more; she wants him to have the whole picture. She wants him to help Shiro. Shiro is helping him, it only seems fair.

The air outside is cold but Keith ignores it. He walks towards Shiro trying to not falter in his steps. He's scared, he can't deny it, but this journey had been about going forward and not stopping.

Keith has his objective in sight, and he won't let go of it.

When he reaches Shiro's side, he sees that the other isn't sleeping. One of his big eyes it's open and looking straight towards Keith. He seems amused. "You couldn't sleep?" the dragon asks, his voice deep and light.

He's really different here, Keith realizes.

"No. I was thinking about too many things." Not a lie and Keith is satisfied that he didn't have to make something up.

Shiro simply nods and then moves his black wing, leaving Keith's usual sleeping place free. It's a subtle invitation, one that Keith readily accepts. He sits in his usual spot, back to Shiro's side, and closes his eyes.

He tries to find comfort in Shiro's heartbeat, in the repetitive motion that assures him that Shiro is still here. Still alive.

He should ask him about the gifts, that's what Pidge told him, but in this moment, where it's just the two of them and the silence of the night, Keith can't lie.

"Pidge told me," he simply says. He doesn't specify what, but he doesn't think he needs to. The way Shiro tenses suggests that he's right.

They remain silent for a couple of seconds before Shiro, surprisingly, guffaws, almost as if he's laughing. "I should have known," he says, "she was watching you like a hawk. She's always been like that."

"Nosy?" Keith suggests, "pushy?"

Shiro smiles again, amused. "Yes. But also kind. Aggressively so."

Keith supposes that it's not a bad description. Aggressive it's certainly an apt adjective. Kind could be as well, he doesn't know well enough, but he knows she has good intentions.

"Lance also told me," Keith continues, because it might be time to come clean on everything, "that there's something wrong with your wing."

This, Keith realizes, catches Shiro by surprise. He frowns, as much as a dragon can, and there is an uncertainty in his gaze. It takes a moment to recognize the emotion, but it becomes clear to Keith in a heart-shattering moment: Shiro is scared.

"Does he know what it is?" Shiro asks. Does he not know? It seems impossible, but everything about their life is impossible.

"No. He has been trying to analyze it stealthy for days, but you keep it always close to you," Keith admits. Shiro accepts his explanation with a nod and a relieved sigh.

He knows then, but he doesn't want them to know. Another secret for Keith to unravel.

"Pidge told me what she could, but I want to hear it from you." He might be pushing it, but at this point, he doesn't have any other weapons but brutal honesty.

"Why? There isn't much else to the story," Shiro replies, curt. He's uncomfortable and he brings his tail closer to his body, to protect himself. Not from Keith, but from memories he doesn't want to share.

Another man, someone more compassionate than Keith, would have let it go. Keith can't. Aggressively kind, Shiro described Pidge. He wonders how he would describe Keith.

"But there is. What did the druids do to you? Why did you leave? It's obvious the Holts wanted you here. What's going on with your wing?" he stops, letting Shiro digest all the questions. "Pidge also wanted me to ask you about the gifts. There is a lot that I don't know."

"Maybe because you shouldn't know them," Shiro says, with a growl. It's an obvious warning. He wants Keith to stop, to leave him in his secrets.

It's too late for that.

"No. I'm..." he stops, unsure of how to continue, "I'm part of your hoard. They keep saying that it means that I'm yours, but if that's true then you're mine as well, as long as I have this curse." He turns, making sure to looks Shiro in the eyes. Keith isn't sure that what he's saying makes sense, but he still feels it deep inside him.

There is something that binds him to Shiro. It has been there since the moment the dragon said You're cursed and has been traveling in Keith's veins like a fever.

"What do you want to know, Keith?" Shiro asks, agitated. "That they broke me? That they took things from me that I will never be able to get back? I killed them. I killed every one of them, but they still won. They took my wing, they took my hoard." He's panting, almost out of breath. There is something wild in his eyes and, not for the first time, Keith is reminded of how powerful Shiro is. How deadly.

Yet, even know, Keith feels perfectly safe.

"What do you mean by your hoard?" Keith asks, unable to even touch anything else Shiro said.

The dragon huffs, annoyed. "Do you think I was born with this hoard? Forced to fly this entire continent in search of cursed artifacts and terrible tragedies? I wasn't. My hoard was beautiful." Shiro's voice is quiet, almost as if he doesn't think he's strong enough to tell this in any other ways but in whispers. "I hoarded gifts. That feeling when you gift something to someone you love, that was my hoard. I used to steal what I could from the village, everyone hated me. And then one day Matt gave me something. My first gift."

His eyes shine with the memory of it, they are sparkly enough that Keith has to stop himself from reaching out to touch him.

"When I escaped the druids, I couldn't feel it anymore. They continue to prepare gifts for me like they used to, but they don't mean the same thing. There is no compulsion to take them, no sparkle. They are just... gifts."

"I'm sorry," Keith says, but it's inadequate to what Shiro just told him. There are no words that will ever encompass the hurt, the loss, that Shiro is feeling right now. Keith can't really understand.

"And then," Shiro continues, as if he hadn't heard Keith, "one day someone brings a cursed item to the village and I feel it. The pull. Curses leave a scent in the air, and I followed it like a blind man. What they did to me, what I did to them, changed me. Made me a monster."

"No!" Keith denies, quickly jumping to his feet. "You're helping people! You were tortured and yet, even know, you're helping people. You're helping me."

Shiro looks at him for a long moment, and then he asks: "Do you want to know what's wrong with my wing?"

There is something in the way that Shiro poses this question that makes Keith think that he should answer no. There are blades hidden in Shiro's voice and Keith knows he'll be hurt if he decides to accept.

Keith nods, answering wordlessly.

Shiro straightens then and right now it's impossible to think that there was ever something human about Shiro. His entire body, the way he holds himself, the look in his eyes: he looks like a beast getting ready to attack.

"It's a curse, Keith. Fatal. Spreading over me until, one day, it will reach my heart and kill me," he smiles, showing all his teeth. "Not long, from the looks of it."

Keith is too stunned to move, but Shiro unfolds his wing and Keith sees what he means. The silver veins have grown in the time they have been together. He hadn't noticed before, but paying attention to it, it's impossible to miss.

"W-why..." Keith doesn't know what he wants to ask. He stammers over the words, clumsily. "We can go to Allura. She can... we can go to the lake together." Why hadn't Allura done something before? Why hadn't she cured him?"

Shiro looks at him and then shakes his head. "She doesn't know. No one knows. I don't want to be cured, Keith."

It's such a shock to hear that Keith thinks his heart might have stopped for a second. Maybe Keith's curse is fatal too. "So what? You want to die?"

"You think I'm living?" Shiro snarls, angry. "I'm a slave to my hoard. I'm forced to fly to every disaster, every tragedy, and have to watch it unfold. I'm tired, Keith. I want it to stop."

"So you want to kill yourself?" Keith screams, feeling the anger rise inside of him like a tidal wave.

"No. The curse is doing it," Shiro huffs, deliberately obtuse.

"There are people who care about you!" Keith's voice rises without his control. But he doesn't want to stop it. He needs to scream, to drown the voice in Shiro's head that's making him do this. "You really want to leave them?"
Shiro shakes his head, amused. It's a terrible look on him. Cruel and uncaring. "They'll live better without me."

"You really believe that." Keith can't understand him, can't even begin to comprehend what Shiro is thinking. "I never had anyone who loved me. I've been alone for most of my life because of my curse. I would have killed to have what you have, and you want to throw it away like this?"

"It's my life, Keith," Shiro simply says. "We'll break your curse tomorrow and you'll have everything you ever wanted. But this is my choice."

At that moment Keith realizes that there is nothing he can say to Shiro. There are no words to make Shiro understand what a colossal mistake he's making. He's not equipped to dealing with this. He needs time. He needs help.

"Maybe the myths are right," he croaks, his voice raspy in his throat. Every word hurts him like a physical blow. "You really do bring misery to anyone who sees you."

Keith certainly feels misery right now.

He doesn't stay to see how Shiro reacts to his words. He runs inside, feeling his breaths burn in his lungs. He wonders if Shiro's curse is contagious if maybe there is poison reaching Keith's heart as well.

It certainly feels that way.

 

Keith doesn't sleep. He waits for Hunk and Lance to wake up and then he watches them. He hadn't woken them up, trying to decide what to tell them, but now - without the aid of the night - everything he knows weight too heavily on his conscience.

The harsh morning light makes everything even worse and it feels impossible for him to tell them now. Still. He has to.

There is no way for him to face this alone. They need to convince Shiro to go to the lake with Keith. Or, at least, find another solution.

"Mullet. what are you doing?" Lance asks him, annoyed by Keith's strange behavior. "Why are you just staring at nothing? Have you finally gone crazy?"

Keith shakes his head and just leaves the room. He'll tell them once he's cured, he decides. He'll force Shiro to go to Allura's house and they'll find a cure.

Shiro said that there wasn't much time left, but the veins haven't reached his heart yet. Keith has time.

 

They leave the Holt house after breakfast. Shiro hasn't said anything to him the entire morning but Keith can't seem to stop staring at him. The silver wing that had fascinated Keith for so long looks ethereal. Keith hates it.

Still, they don't talk to each other. Even while they fly towards their destination, they remain stubbornly quiet. Lance and Hunk seem to pick up on the strange tension and don't speak as well - Keith sees them exchanging worried glances, but nothing more.

After a couple of hours of travel, Shiro starts descending. "We're here," he tells them.

In front of them, there is a mountain range, bigger than all the others they've passed before. Keith doesn't know if it's the right place, but he hopes it is. Time isn't a luxury they can waste.

"The clue said that a lion would guard the entrance to Oriande," Keith tells them, trying to understand what that would mean. Both Lance and Hunk seem to be as clueless as Keith is, but Shiro nods.

"I know where it is," he simply says. "I used to come here to fly where I was younger," he explains, "and there is a lion's statue on one of the mountains. I always found it strange."

"You mean this might actually be it?" Lance asks, surprised. Even Keith has to admit that he had feared it wouldn't be that easy.

He's glad he was wrong.

Shiro descends towards the mountain slowly but surely. Keith's mind is trying to think of a way to force the dragon to go with him. He tries to remember what Allura had told him about the use of the lake and the rules required to break each curse.

He has been trying since the night before, but he's having difficulties focusing.

They've almost reached the ground then Shiro grunts in pain and, suddenly, they are falling. It's not a big fall, but enough of one for Keith to have flashbacks. The moment he hits the ground he looks towards Shiro, startled.

The dragon is shaking on the ground, clearly in pain.

Lance is the first to reach Shiro, trying to use his magic to heal him. Keith knows it won't work. He knows what the problem is. "It's his wing!" He says, getting up. "It's cursed."

Lance looks back at him, surprised, but he overcomes it quickly, turning back towards Shiro. "Okay. If it's a curse, I should be able to slow down the effects. I think. I really haven't been trained for this."

"Maybe not," Hunk says, reaching his friend, "but you can do it."

Lance nods, mumbling: "This dragon is a giant pain in my ass." A moment later Lance is glowing again, his magic sparkling with the force of his desperation. Shiro's breath is labored and Keith takes a step forward, to comfort him, it's then that he notices it.

He turns and in front of him stands a lion carved in the stone. He looks imposing like he's judging them. They have reached Oriande.

Hunk must follow his gaze because he murmurs a startled Wow. Keith agrees.

Behind that lion is the lake that will allow him to cure his curse. They hadn't seen it when they were flying in that direction, but there's a reason why it's a magical lake.

Shiro's groans bring Keith back to the reality where Shiro is dying, right in front of Keith's eyes. He thought they had more time.

Keith doesn't know how he can fix this if there is anything he can do. Fatal curses are nothing to be trifled with. Allura's voice had been somber while she explained it to him.

Intent is everything, yes, but there was something more. For a familiar curse, only someone affected by it could gather the required water. For a fatal curse... love. Love was the required intent.

Keith looks at Shiro's face, contorted in pain, and finds it easy to decide. He takes the potion from the magical food bag and then sprints towards the lion.

"What are you doing?" Hunk screams after him.

Keith doesn't look back when he replies: "Breaking a curse!" He runs to where the lion is and he sees, beneath his paws, an entrance that he hadn't noticed before. It's possible that it had just appeared but he doesn't have time to study it.

He runs inside, never stopping. There are things written on the side of the hallway, paintings and stories that are probably magical in nature, but Keith can't stop and read them. Urgency commands his every step and he knows that he stops for even a second, he will never forgive himself.

After the long and narrow hallway, there is an oasis that awaits him. In spite of the mountainside, the lake of Oriande is full of life. Any other moment, Keith would enjoy this.

Now, he runs to the lake in the middle of it and opens the vial.

Intent, Allura had said. Love, as well. He doesn't know if what he feels it's love. It seems impossible for someone whom he knows so little of. All he knows is that he cares about Shiro, that there is something there that he doesn't know how to name.

If magic responds to intent, Keith's mind is only focused on one thing: saving Shiro.

He finally dips the potion in the water and watches as it lights up and fills. The water around the vial glows blue, and then pink, and then finally purple. A couple of seconds later, when the glow has disappeared, Keith retrieves the potion.

Where before it had been a brown liquid now resides a deep red potion. To anyone, it would look like blood.

He doesn't know if it will work, but he takes it and sprints back in the opposite direction, back in the direction where he came from. He passes the same hallway, exits from the space in between the lion's paws, and reaches Shiro's body as quickly as he can.

Lance is still trying to stop the curse from consuming Shiro, but when he sees Keith he turns in his direction. His eyes are as blue as Allura's and he looks at Keith's potion for a second before informing him that "That is not for you, Keith."

There is something otherworldly in his voice, almost as if it wasn't Lance at all that was speaking but his magic. Still, it's nothing Keith didn't know before. Keith's own curse hadn't even touched his mind while he gathered the water.

He doesn't answer Lance, crouching beside Shiro's mouth and pouring the potion in it, trying to avoid spilling it anywhere.

When the vial is empty, Keith watches anxiously for any change in Shiro's state. For a couple of minutes, nothing changes.

Maybe it didn't work. Maybe Keith's feeling wasn't enough to satisfy the rules. Maybe he just threw away the one chance they had.

A second later, however, Shiro's body starts to glow. Just like the water at the lake and then, impossibly, even brighter.

Keith is forced to close his eyes to avoid being blinded.

When he reopens them, Shiro's dragon body is gone and, in his place, lies a human. Shiro's human body looks different from what Keith had imagined. He's... handsome. His hair is completely white and so is his right arm. Keith realizes after a few seconds that it's because Shiro's arm is completely covered in scales, instead of skins.

Still, there is something undeniably Shiro about him.

"I think you just saved his life," Hunk whispers.

Keith blinks at Shiro’s body and then at Hunk. Has he? He looks back at the lion statue and he’s surprised to see that there is no entrance anymore in between the statue’s paws. Whatever magical lake opened for Keith, now it has disappeared forever.

Still, Shiro is alive and safe and Keith can finally breathe again.

 

They drag Shiro's body back to the Holt's house with some difficulty. It takes almost an entire day, but Shiro never wakes. When the family sees them arriving with Shiro in human form, Coleen audibly gasps. Sam motions them to bring him to his room.

The one Keith had seen two times, once in the castle and then here.

Once Shiro is asleep in his bed, Lance checks him over once again. "There is nothing wrong with him," he reassures them at the end. "I don't feel anything else strange. I actually think Mullet might have done something good in his life."

Even if Keith hasn't broken the curse, he thinks there is something less antagonistic in Lance's voice. Lance might still not like him, but it's obvious he doesn't hate him anymore. Considering that Keith is still cursed to never be loved, he counts it as a win.

One by one, everyone leaves the room. Lance and Hunk to sleep off the journey, the Holts to do what they do in their everyday lives.

Keith stays there.

He has much to think about and he can't seem to look away from Shiro's sleeping form. Will Shiro be angry with him? Probably. Will breaking the curse revert Shiro's hoard? If it did, what would it mean for Keith?

Does he even want to be part of Shiro's hoard?

The answer to this last question is a little bit of a shock. It shouldn't be, probably, considering what he has just given up for the dragon, but the truth is that he wants to be one of Shiro's cursed things. He wants to have a bond with Shiro, he wants to be Shiro's and for the dragon to be his.

Is this love, he wonders? It's certainly different from what he felt for his father and that's the only example of love he has in his life.

If Shiro wants nothing to do with him now, however, there is nothing that Keith can do. The knowledge is jarring, but it would have been worse if Shiro was dead because of him. He can live with being alone, has done so his entire life. He doesn't want to watch someone he cares about die.

It's strange to think that he cares about Shiro, but it's a truth that it's impossible to deny any longer. He has magic as his witness, and he thinks there might not be stronger proof than that.

He never would have figured, months ago, that his search would end up like this. Still cursed, but not alone.

Keith brings his chair closer to the bed and for a moment he lets his hand hover beside Shiro's white one. he wants to touch the white scales, now like when they were part of Shiro's wing, but it's not his place.

His hand falls beside Shiro's, unable to gather the courage to break that last barrier. Once Shiro wakes up, if he forgives Keith, then he'll ask him to let Keith touch his scales. At least this, he'll let Shiro decide.

 

He must fall asleep because when he opens his eyes, Shiro is watching him. Keith doesn't jump in his seat, but he feels his heart skip a beat.

Shiro's human eyes are similar to his dragon's eyes. They have the same exact color, but thy look gentler. It's still not the same as a human's eye, but certainly not a dragon's either.

"You're awake," Keith points out.

Shiro nods. "Also alive."

It's obvious that Shiro knows what happened. He probably can still feel the curse sticking to Keith. It's not difficult to put two and two together. However, Keith refuses to be ashamed of his decision.

Shiro can be angry at him, but he doesn't regret his decision. He would do it again in a heartbeat.

"If you want to scream at me," Keith tells him, squaring his shoulders, "you can."

"You threw away your chance of being free," Shiro says instead, watching Keith like he can't understand him. "Why?"

Keith knows that whatever he says next will be extremely important. He has to get this right. "Because I wasn't living," he settles for in the end, He hopes that Shiro recognizes that Keith is deliberately using the same words as Shiro. "Because before I met you I was alone, there was nothing I wanted. Nothing I wanted to do. But I wanted to save you and so I did."

Shiro seems surprised by the answer for a second before he smiles. "Simple as that, eh?"

Keith doesn't know what answer the other wants. He doesn't have anything better to offer. He's sure that Shiro knows the requirements for breaking a fatal curse. He's aware of Keith's feelings.

Everything is in his hands.

"I was scared," Shiro says in the end. His voice is low, deep. Similar to the one he has when he's transformed, yet different. "Everyone kept saying that I only bring sadness, and I started believing it. Nothing good happened to me or those around me. So why should I continue living?" he asks it with a defeated smile. Keith wants to protest, rage against it, but Shiro continues before he can. "And then you tried to kill me."

"Who would have known I'd end up saving your life." It's a joke, a lame one at that, but Shiro smiles all the same.

"You saved me two times," Shiro reminds him. "You ordered me to live that day in the forest and you tried your best to save me. And I got scared. I was already set on dying, but you made me think that maybe I could still be good for something. it was a scary thought."

"I'm not the first person you helped," Keith objects, surprised. "I've met some of them."

Shiro smiles, something coy and shy. "Yes. But I'm yours, right? I was never theirs."

Something catches in Keith's throat, heavy and warm. "Am I still part of your hoard?" He needs to know, with a desperation that borders on ridiculous.

Shiro watches him, with a little crease in his face—his human face, Keith still hasn't completely gotten used to the idea. "Yes," he answers in the end, "but that's not why——"

Keith knows that, but knowing that there is still an unbreakable bond between them makes him breathe easier. Makes him gather his courage and extend his hand towards Shiro's. He stops a few inches shy of actually touching it, leaving the choice to the dragon.

The other looks at him in the eyes, his gaze never wavering, before he finally takes Keith's hand in his.

Shiro's white scales are colder than his black ones, but also softer. It's an impossibility, he's sure that scales don't work like that, but he doesn't care. He smiles at Shiro and uses their connection to pull Shiro towards himself.

He kisses Shiro quickly, just a peck. He thinks about a love strong enough to break curses, but he doesn't think they are there yet. They will, but they need time.

Shiro looks startled by the kiss and Keith can't help but smile at him. "I want to find my mother. She might not know how to break her curse. And we need to go back to Arus, Allura says that she can mitigate the effect of my curse, even if she can’t break it."

"Rather pushy, aren't you?" Shiro wonders, but there's an obvious smile pulling at his mouth.

Keith's own smile hasn't left his face since the kiss. "I think we both deserve to discover what living is like."

Keith might be cursed, but now he thinks Remdax might have been right: it's not so bad being one of Shiro's cursed things.