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EVENTUALLY THIS WHOLE BUSINESS WITH HEART is going to kill him.
But Smokey hopes it's not today.
Ignoring every screaming signal in his body pleading with him to stop, Smokey forces his legs to carry him faster, through the woods, away from danger.
Away from Heart.
Finally, his lungs on fire, his legs rubber, gasping for air, Smokey breaks into a clearing, drops his battle ax with a thud, and falls to his knees as a dozen birds take flight in alarm. Letting his chin fall to his chest, he notices he's dripping blood on the ground from a long gash across his forearm.
In the furor of the battle, he'd underestimated how badly he was hurt. Smokey had seen worse injuries in his long history fighting demons, but still, each new slash reminded him how fragile his mere human body was.
He presses his palm to the wound and closes his eyes, letting his breath return to him. He decides to take a short break here, before continuing on, feeling certain Heart couldn't have tracked him, particularly not after he spent a half a mile wading through that river an hour back. He lets his shoulders relax. He's alone, he's safe — for the moment.
Smokey would spend the rest of his life trying to atone for the damage he caused by allowing the demon portal to open. In the long run, he doesn't stand a chance against the onslaught of horror pouring out of the portal every day, but still he fights, killing demons one by one. Doing his part. It's the least he can do, considering.
So when the Dragonbeast emerged from the portal, Smokey had no choice but to fight it. He'd heard the rumors about the Dragonbeast, that it had killed eight hunters already, that it was fearsome and mighty ... yadda, yadda, whatever. None of that mattered because at the end of the day, he's a hunter and the Dragonbeast needed hunting. He'd waltzed into the fight with the same swagger he used in every situation, and look, it had worked, hadn't it? The Dreagonbeast lies dead and Smokey is alive — although his damn arm hurts like hell. And the demon portal? It's still perfectly functioning and spitting out demons faster than he can take them down. But he'd yet to find a way to deal with that particular shitshow.
Lord, he needs a drink.
"He got you good, didn't he?" Heart's voice cuts through the silence.
Smokey leaps to his feet and draws his ax with his good arm in one swift motion as Heart appears from the shadows, looking like he just stepped out of a Lands' End photoshoot, not the depths of demon hell.
Damn, Smokey thinks, he may have underestimated Heart's tracking skills. Or is he just that bad at hiding his trail? Because Smokey managed to slay a Dragonbeast — a Dragonbeast! — and escape with his life, only to be tracked down by Heart, the most annoying demon on the planet.
He and Heart had rumbled before, of course, but Heart had always managed to escape Smokey's ax. Heart insists to anyone who will listen that he's different from other demons because he has a (wait for it ...) heart. Like the organ, like in his chest. Yeah, we get it you on-the-nose-asshole, you're a demon with a heart. Love the name.
But Smokey suspects that what really sets Heart apart is the fact that he's the most self-righteous, obnoxious, soap-boxing ass he's ever met. And he's always there, showing up at inopportune times, making a nuisance of himself, and refusing to get killed. He's even provided the cover Smokey needed to escape danger one or two times. By accident, Smokey is sure. Because they're enemies. They have to be. Internal organs or no, a demon's a demon, and demons all belong in hell.
"Not another step," Smokey warns Heart, his ax trembling from exhaustion.
Storm clouds rumble overhead, threatening rain. Smokey ignores them.
"You're bleeding," Heart notices with ... is that concern? He reaches up and rips the sleeve off his own shirt, exposing the thick bicep underneath. "Give me your arm," Heart growls, stepping toward Smokey.
"I said stay where you are." Smokey keeps his ax in battle position, but Heart just brushes past it and Smokey finds he doesn't have the reserves to keep up the struggle. Heart starts wrapping Smokey's wound with his torn sleeve.
"What are you doing?" Smokey demands. Is this a trick? "Trying to keep you from bleeding out," Heart says simply.
"Why, so I can be alive and healthy when you kick me down to hell?" Smokey growls.
Heart just levels him with an annoyed look and continues to work on Smokey's arm. It already hurts less, under the pressure of Heart's makeshift bandage and his hands, too-warm from demon blood. Smokey curses himself for his weakness. Heart is a demon, Smokey is a hunter, they're mortal enemies, not soldier and nurse.
"The opening of the demon portal," Heart murmurs as he works. "You know it's not your fault."
Smokey scoffs. That's not remotely true. It's entirely his fault. Smokey failed to stop the seven commandments that led to the demon portal opening and the Commander stepping foot on earth for the first time in millennia. No one else was there to stop it but Smokey, and he 100 percent, no-doubt-about-it failed.
"You did everything you could," Heart says.
Smokey feels Heart tie the bandage off tight, his hands strong, secure.
"Why are you saying this?" Smokey asks, afraid of the answer.
"Because you're a good man," Heart says. "Maybe the best." Smokey knows he shouldn't trust the demon in front of him, that there's a more-than-fair chance that this is all a trick to catch him with his guard down, but the truth is, he's tired. Tired of the battle. Tired of being on guard. Tired of fighting solo. The demon portal is open. The Commander has returned. The world is on the brink of total demon rule.
Nothing matters, except that Smokey screwed up yet again. And he's alone.
But Heart, for some reason Smokey can't comprehend, forgives him.
Smokey keeps his eyes firmly on the ground in front of him. "I tried to stop it, but it wasn't enough. I didn't change anything."
Heart grasps his hand, and the heat from Heart's fingers sends a wave of warmth up Smokey's arm. "You changed me," Heart says, low and rough, and it seems impossible. "I know you think we have to be enemies because of how we were born ..." The pain in Smokey's arm is barely a whimper now, ignored as he tries to make sense of the words coming out of Heart's mouth, the feeling of Heart's fingers lacing into his. "It doesn't have to be that way. We want the same things."
What does Smokey want?
He knows, of course. He's always known. "Heart ..." Smokey whispers.
Heart smiles. "If you want me, I'm here, I'm not leaving." The two lock eyes as the rest of the forest fades away. "I'll stay with you ..." he starts, then waits, the words from their first meeting hanging in the air for Smokey to finish.
"'Til the dirt hits my chest," Smokey says.
And like that, Smokey's head feels light, his eyes are clear, his arm doesn't hurt, and everything makes sense.
Smokey meets Heart's deep brown eyes and sees him waiting for an opening, waiting for permission. Smokey tips forward, and before his brain can stop his body, their mouths fit together, hot and solid and exactly what Smokey has been waiting a very long time for.
Smokey wraps his hands around Heart, one of them traveling up to curl into his hair, the other pressing into his back, bringing him closer, closer. The heat of Heart's breath sends a thrill through Smokey's spine, and he can't believe they're finally kissing, and he can't believe it took this long.
As Heart's mouth grows more insistent, Smokey feels an aching heat grow in his stomach, like a sun threatening to turn supernova, the enormity of this kiss overwhelming his senses, blinding out his brain.
There's a crack of thunder and a flash of lightning, and Heart is pulling off his shirt, his warm brown skin smooth over taut muscles, bearing the marks of many battles including one scar that runs long and thin down his chest that, Smokey realizes with horror, he remembers inflicting.
Doubt creeps in.
This isn't right. They're enemies, not lovers.
Smokey pulls away and turns his back on Heart, all the feelings hitting him in a crush at once. He's tried to kill Heart so many times. What if this is a trap? What if Smokey's letting his feelings get in the way of good sense? Does he even know where his battle ax is?
"What is it?" Heart asks, worry in his voice. He traces Smokey's line of sight to the ax, lying on the ground a few feet away. "You want to kill me? Now's your chance. I won't even fight back."
Smokey shakes his head. "I've already hurt you too much."
"Oh, these?" Smokey peeks over his shoulder to see Heart trace the shapes of the scars on his body. "My skin heals. Just don't hurt my heart" — he pauses, smiling at his joke before he even says it — "because I have one of those, too, you know." Heart's eyes twinkle annoyingly, but Smokey isn't in a joking mood.
He has to know. Smokey turns back and fixes his eyes firmly on the dirt in front of him and asks, low, "Is this real?"
He hears Heart take a long breath in, then step forward, hooking his chin over Smokey's shoulder. Smokey tenses, but as Heart slides his hand across Smokey's stomach, lifting his shirt, he feels the tension leave his body. When Heart subtly rocks forward so Smokey can feel the swell straining stiffly against the fabric of his pants, Smokey gasps out a breath and closes his eyes, letting the desire course through him.
Heart whispers in Smokey's ear, breath hot on his skin, "It's real for me; is it real for you?"
And so, like a book sliding into place on a shelf, Smokey makes the decision to allow himself to find a home in Heart's arms. He leans back into Heart, letting their bodies notch together. Heart is all skin and steady pressure, and Smokey wants nothing as much as he wants this. Heart slides his open hand down Smokey's chest, over his belly, dipping under his waistband, and curls it around his —
HM. SOOOO ... HM. I HAV E TO PAUSE WR ITING FOR a moment because this is the first time I've ever tried to do a scene with this kind of choreography, and I don't actually know how the next part works.
Frankly, it can be a challenge writing explicit gay fanfic as a teenage girl virgin who's never done any of these things before.
I glance around the school library, but the only other person here is Ms. Wignall, our librarian, who's shelving books and not paying any attention to me, so I go ahead and try to mime Heart's movements. He's about to give Smokey the handjob of his life, but, like, from behind? Is that a thing? I feel like it could be. Having never given a life-altering handjob — from the front or behind — I'm a little mystified as to how it works. Does the wrist go this way or that way?
Whatever, that's what Google is for.
I know from experience that the school's internet filters won't let me access sexually explicit information, so I connect to Pine Bluff's terrible public wifi instead. It takes forever to load my homepage, during which time I try to figure out what to search. Handjob? No ... reacharound. That's it. I knew it was a thing.
Googling "gay porn reacharound" leads you to a sparkling variety of sites that all seem useful to my research. I click on the first video and loud moaning comes out of the speakers.
Shit. Mute. Shit.
Ms. Wignall gives me a look over her glasses, but miraculously she goes back to shelving books. I scootch the laptop closer and examine the video on mute. Ahhh, the wrist goes that way, okay, got it.
I could stop there, but I keep watching the video a minute longer than I need to. Their faces, twisted up, their muscles working, their movements syncing until they're not two separate people anymore but one, connected, a unit. It's mesmerizing. One of them blond, one of them dark-haired — I'm already imagining them as Smokey and Heart. Why anyone would watch porn videos rather than read fanfic is beyond me. Isn't imagining sex better, more compelling, when it's between two people you know and care about and feel things for, rather than these tanned, oily strangers?
Stopping the video, I open up the fic again. It's not really about the sex. Okay, it is, but the sex is also about Smokey learning to trust another person, even if that person is a demon. And about Heart sacrificing everything he knows for the human he accidentally fell for. The sex — the thrusting, the low moans, the rain pelting down on their naked, strong bodies, washing away their pain until finally, the release — that's all just gravy. Really, it's about love.
When I finish the fic, I post it to my fanfic page and hit publish. Then I post a snippet and a link on my Tumblr. It belongs to the internet now. Smokey and Heart's love, no matter how many times I write about it, always feels new and incredible and joyous. I know it's only a matter of time before the notes start coming in — people liking, commenting, responding to my work. I would be writing these stories whether anyone read them or not, but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't nice to know other people like what I do. Even if I don't ever really talk to them, or have any real friends in fandom, just knowing they're out there, feeling what I'm feeling, shipping what I'm shipping. ... It feels good to not be alone, even when I'm sitting by myself in an empty library.
Or at least, I was by myself, until Andrea Garcia slides into the seat across from me, asking before I even look up, "Are you working on the assignment for Mrs. Fitz?"
I snap to attention, awaking from my post-fic buzz, and stare at Andrea, with her perfect winged eyeliner, delicate fake lashes, and exquisitely groomed thick, dark eyebrows. She's the daughter of the couple who own the feed store downtown, so her family is basically Pine Bluff royalty. She has very nice skin and a very nice car, and she's Kyle Cunningham's girlfriend. There's a million reasons why Andrea and I don't really ever talk, but that list is a good start.
Which is why it's super weird she's talking to me now.
"Oh, uh, no," I mumble as I covertly close the porn tab that was still open on my laptop.
"Well, have you finished it yet? I can't figure out the last question."
"No, I usually just do it right before class."
"Okay, well, some of us aren't that smart," she says bitterly.
"Oh, I didn't mean ..."
"Yeah, I know, whatever," she says, frustrated. I have this effect on people.
That's when Kyle Cunningham saunters up and kisses Andrea obscenely. I know, I know, how can this kiss possibly be considered obscene compared to what I was just writing, but the difference is Smokey and Heart are beautiful and in love, and Kyle Cunningham is a gross popular farm kid who doesn't deserve to share the same zip code with Andrea.
On TV, high schools never have popular farm kids, so I get the sense this isn't a nation-wide phenomenon. Maybe at other schools, popular kids play guitar or have a tattoo or listen to their parents' vinyl or something, I don't know. But in Pine Bluff, Idaho, the cool kids wear Carhartt work pants with chewing tobacco stuffed in the side pocket and camouflage hunting T-shirts that match their John Deere baseball hats with the brims bent all the way in half. Their shoes are always muddy because they had to, like, milk the cows that morning before they came to school or something (I don't know because I'm not friends with them). Honestly, it sounds like a lot of work, and I'm sure it's difficult balancing farming with high school and being popular, but I don't feel like empathizing with them because they've never really made an effort with me, either.
Why don't I have friends in Pine Bluff? Maybe they don't like me because I'm a "city kid." (Pine Bluff with all of its four thousand people is actually considered a city to people who live twenty miles into the country.) Or maybe it's because I only moved here five years ago and wasn't born and bred in Pine Bluff. But probably they don't like me because they expect me to be obsessed with country music and elk hunting and prom instead of a dumb TV show about demons in which the two lead male characters are not yet — but totally should be — dating.
I realized a long time ago that making friends wasn't really going to be a realistic goal, and a better mission was to keep my head down, get into a good college a long way from here, and never talk to anyone from Pine Bluff again.
Excerpted from "Ship It"
Copyright © 2018 Britta Lundin.
Excerpted by permission of Disney Book Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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