“Why did you try to kill me?”
“Because you were the most beautiful creature I’d ever seen.”
“What kind of monster wants to kill the thing he finds beautiful?”
- - -
Winter that year is long and brutal. Yunho expects it, but the harsh reality of it still takes him by surprise. He battens down the hatches and hunkers down to wait it out, but after two weeks he starts running low on supplies. No huntsman worth his salt would dare venture out in the cold arctic blizzard, but Yunho does it anyway, dragging firewood up to the side of his cottage and killing a fat wild boar that should last him for another week. Even the wolves have left the forest, seeking warmer pastures down south, but Yunho determines to ride out the worst of the season. When Spring comes it’ll all be worth it.
The first time he sees the stag he thinks it’s an illusion, some hallucination concocted by the glare of weak sunlight off snow. There are no deer in these forests so the stag is an anomaly, a magnificent, cream-coloured anomaly with antlers so long they dwarf the trees around it. It stares at Yunho and Yunho stares back, and then he makes some small movement and it darts away, as swift and fleeting as a dream.
He sees it again a week later, snuffling around in the undergrowth for food. Yunho pauses and gazes at it from a distance, his rifle heavy in his hand as his eyes flicker over the long, elegant sweep of its neck and the antlers bobbing as it licks at the snow. He could get a good price on those antlers from the black market trader down at the village. Yunho shifts, a twig cracking under his feet, and the stag raises its head as the sound reverberates through the forest like a gunshot. Its liquid eyes fix on Yunho and the huntsman feels himself freeze, caught and held by that soft brown gaze. His hand twitches on his gun and he raises it slightly, but the stag is gone before he can aim.
It haunts his thoughts. He dreams of shadows flickering through the trees, broken by the glowing outline of a running stag. It leaps off the edge of a rock and prances in front of him, tossing its beautiful head and fixing him with a haughty look. Yunho makes to follow it when it starts to leave but his feet are frozen in the ground. He calls out, but the stag is gone in a swirl of snow. He stares after it for a long time and wakes up disoriented and nauseous.
Yunho only ever kills the creatures of the forest for food or self-defence, but he wants the stag for reasons he’s not even sure of himself. Something so rare and beautiful deserves to be immortalised forever, and there is no state of existence more permanent than death. He wants to mount that magnificent head on his wall, a prize and a reminder of the grandeur nature has to offer. He wants those liquid eyes to stop haunting him. He wants to stop chasing it in his dreams.
He doesn’t see it again for a few weeks and Yunho wonders if winter killed the poor creature before he could get to it. He scours the forest for traces of the stag but it leaves as much sign as a ghost. Maybe he imagined it, some strange obsession made up by a lonely mind. Better that than the thought of it wasting away in some cold ditch on this godforsaken spit of Earth.
He’s almost given up on seeing it again when a cream-coloured flash flickers through the trees in front of his cottage. Yunho grabs his rifle and runs after it, dodging low-lying branches as he darts after the creature. The stag weaves in and out of sight - it’s fast, much faster than him, but Yunho cuts a shortcut through the underbrush and loops around to higher ground, coming up on a rock above the stag’s trajectory. He crouches and takes aim, catches a glimpse of the stag through the trees. He follows the creature with his rifle, trying to aim for a clean kill. The stag pauses and turns its head and Yunho pulls the trigger.
The sound of the gunshot cracks through the air. He’s a second too late - the stag had already started moving again when he shot. It’s disappeared from view and he can’t see if he got it or not. Nearby, a bird takes off with a screech and then a moment later a scream shatters the silent forest. Yunho starts, because the sound is not that of a dying animal - it’s a human scream, someone in unimaginable pain. He slips and slides off the rock before running towards the sound. Someone is making a low, keening sound punctuated by sobs. He hears shuffling and calls out, worry creasing his forehead.
“Hello? Is anyone there?”
A few seconds later Yunho almost trips over the man lying on the forest floor, the snow around him stained pink with his own blood. He’s naked and bleeding from a wound in his thigh. As Yunho crouches beside him he makes a terrified sound and tries to scramble away, but his injury prevents him from moving far. Yunho holds his hands out placatingly.
“Hey, it’s ok. I won’t hurt you,” he says. He stares at the gunshot wound in the man’s leg and chews his bottom lip. How could he have hit this stranger instead of the stag? Where had the man even come from? Nobody lived around here except him, and he had seen no signs of another person nearby. The man staring up at him has caramel skin and long, elegant limbs, but it’s his eyes that capture and hold Yunho. They’re big and brown and seem vaguely familiar, but he can’t place where he’s seen them before. Yunho moves towards him again and the stranger shrinks away, breathing hard. He’s like some scared, wild animal, incapable of making any sound but guttural whimpers. Yunho puts on the soothing voice he uses to treat injured wildlife that sometimes ends up on his doorstep.
“It’s ok,” he says softly. “Here,” he takes his coat off and drapes it over the naked man. He helps him to his feet, but the man can’t walk - he tries putting weight on his injured leg before collapsing again with a cry of pain. Yunho helps him onto his back and stands with the stranger clinging to him. Puffs of trembling breath heat his skin as he makes his way back towards his cottage, head spinning with questions and guilt.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t realise there was anyone else here,” he says. The man makes no response except to tighten his hold around his neck and groan softly as Yunho accidentally bumps his injured leg.
“I’m Yunho,” he says eventually. “What’s your name?”
Still the man says nothing, and Yunho starts to wonder if he’s passed out. But when he gets home and lowers him to his bed the stranger cries out again and stares at him, very much awake and no less frightened than before. His eyes dart around the room, taking in the pelts hanging by the fireplace (to be sold or made into fur coats and blankets) and the meat roasting on the spit. The fire is mere embers by now and Yunho strokes it to life again before retrieving his medical kit and crouching beside the injured stranger.
“Can’t you talk?” he asks. The other man makes no movement, just stares at the gauze and antiseptic in Yunho’s hands. His unwavering gaze is starting to freak Yunho out a little. There’s something wild and untamed about him, about the long brown hair falling into his eyes and the sleek muscles under his skin that hint at a life lived mostly outdoors. He can’t be much younger than Yunho but his eyes seem ancient. Yunho moves towards him and he shrinks back, tossing his head in a way that’s strangely reminiscent of his elusive stag. Yunho pauses, stares at him.
“You…you remind me of it,” he says vaguely. The stranger freezes and he leans closer. “The stag,” Yunho breathes. He reaches a hand up to brush the man’s hair off his face and he jerks back suddenly, almost upsetting the bottle of antiseptic. Some of it leaks onto the bedsheets and Yunho tuts.
“Now look what you’ve done,” he scolds. That tone of voice seems to work better than his soothing one - the stranger stills, watching curiously as Yunho swabs at his injury. He hisses at the sting but doesn’t move away, even when Yunho carefully works the bullet out of his thigh. He glances up at the man once during the procedure and sees him gritting his teeth, silent tears pouring down his face, but he hardly makes a sound as Yunho cleans him up and bandages the wound. He brings him a glass of water and some painkillers, helping him down them before letting the strange, wild man sink back against his sheets.
His eyes flutter and Yunho finds himself staring again. Now that he’s stopped panicking he notes that the stranger is quite beautiful with his elegant features and wide, generous lips. He opens his eyes drowsily and stares up at Yunho, something nameless flickering in their liquid depths.
“I wish I knew your name,” Yunho says softly. The man’s lips move, as though he’s trying to articulate something, and after a while a single word slips through.
“Changmin,” he says softly. Moments later he gives in to the medicine and sleeps.
- - -
Yunho wakes to the sound of scrabbling against his wooden walls. He’d fallen asleep in his armchair beside the bed, too exhausted and confused to do much else but eat a quick dinner and make sure the stranger - Changmin - was warm and resting fine. He jerks awake as a low whine reverberates through the room and finds Changmin thrashing in his bed, flushed and breathing hard. Yunho presses a hand against his forehead and hisses.
“Fuck. You have a fever….hold still, let me check your leg,” he says. Changmin pants up at him, his eyes wide with incomprehension - but he stills when Yunho pulls back the bedsheets and shakes his head at the mess below. Changmin’s bled through his bandages and all the sheets are stained red. Yunho pulls back the gauze and grits his teeth when the other man cries out.
“God, I hope it’s not infected. I’m going to re-bandage this, one second,” he says. He knows Changmin understands him, even if he doesn’t say anything as Yunho changes his dressings and pulls the bloodied sheets away. He feels a hand on his arm before he turns away and looks back to find Changmin looking at him guiltily.
“Sorry,” he says, glancing at the mess he’d made of the sheets. Yunho’s mouth goes dry before he shakes his head.
“It’s fine. Not your fault. I’m the one who shot you,” he says. This seems to assuage Changmin’s worries and he sinks back, watching from the bed as Yunho potters around, discarding the ruined sheets in the corner before making them something to eat. He brings a bowl of soup to Changmin’s bedside and feeds him carefully, the other man blinking at him slow and curious as he submits to the care. Yunho thinks he could lose himself forever in that gaze, it says so much and yet gives so little away.
“Why?” Changmin asks softly when he’s done. Yunho puts the bowl aside and frowns at him.
“Why what?” he asks.
“Why did you shoot me?” Changmin’s speech is slow and clumsy, but his voice has a soft, deep allure to it. Yunho blinks at him.
“I- it was a mistake,” he stutters. “I was aiming for the stag.”
“You were aiming for me,” Changmin says. Yunho stares, not sure he understands and less sure that he even wants to.
“What? No I wasn’t, I was aiming for - ”
“The stag,” Changmin interrupts. He tilts his head and looks at Yunho, looks at him with those deep, strangely familiar eyes and Yunho feels everything inside him tighten and expand.
“But you can’t be,” he whispers.
“Because. . .”
Because that shouldn’t be possible. Because if that was true then he was a monster, a monster for trying to kill a creature so lovely and magical. Yunho knows the stories - he knows what happens to huntsmen who take things they have no right to. There’s a natural order he has to adhere to, and what he takes from the forest he always puts back in other ways. But creatures like Changmin exist outside that order.
Yunho stumbles to his feet and backs away. Changmin’s eyes follow him, dark and accusatory.
“Why did you try to kill me?” he asks. Yunho shakes his head, hands rising in defence.
“I don’t know,” he breathes. “I didn’t know - ”
“You had no right,” Changmin says.
“I’m sorry,” Yunho backs towards the door. It feels like the walls are closing in on him, as though Changmin is tearing him to shreds with his eyes alone. He needs to get out of there, to get some fresh air. “I’m sorry…”
The door slams in his wake.
- - -
When Yunho finally slinks back home he finds Changmin fast asleep, burrowed beneath the covers and breathing deep and even. Yunho reaches a hand out, drawn to the strange creature despite himself, and brushes a strand of hair off Changmin’s forehead. Changmin turns his head, stirring briefly before settling back into sleep. Yunho sinks to his knees beside the bed and clasps his hands together.
“Forgive me,” he whispers. Changmin’s eyes flutter open.
“There is no forgiveness for monsters who should know better,” he says. His words spear through Yunho’s heart and he swallows, meeting Changmin’s eye. After a while Changmin closes his eyes and turns away. “Healing me can be your penance,” he says into the pillow.
Yunho remains kneeling by the bed for a long time, eventually falling asleep with his head cradled on his arms.
Changmin takes a turn for the worse the next day, his fever spiking until he’s slipping in and out of consciousness. Yunho does the best he can for him but he starts to wonder if he should risk a trip into the village, where there are actual doctors who can do much more for Changmin. But Changmin still can’t walk, and Yunho isn’t sure he’d be able to carry him all the way there. When he suggests the idea to the other man Changmin stares at him and then abruptly shakes his head.
“Why not?” Yunho asks. “They’d be able to heal you much faster than I can.”
Changmin only shakes his head again. “People,” he says. “Too many people. Scared.”
“I’m people,” Yunho points out.
“You’re different. You owe me a debt,” Changmin says.
“Because I tried to kill you. Nobody at the village would hurt you.”
But Changmin just keeps shaking his head and refuses to hear any more on the matter.
Eventually his fever breaks and Yunho dares to hope he might be getting better. Changmin grows tired of being confined to the bed, so Yunho fashions him a crutch that allows him to hobble around in the small cottage. He spends long hours staring out the window, swathed in blankets and Yunho’s too-large clothes. They hang off his lean frame and give him an emaciated look. Yunho tries to feed him rich foods but his efforts are hampered by the fact that Changmin refuses to eat game. He eyes Yunho with suspicion as the other man brings over a bowl of stew and Yunho smiles.
“Don’t worry, there’s no meat in it,” he says. He sits on the window seat beside the deer-man and holds the bowl out for Changmin to sniff. He’s found that Changmin is quite capable of feeding himself but he seems to enjoy letting Yunho feed him, so he raises the spoon to his mouth and Changmin obediently parts his lips. Yunho smiles, amused by the eager, childlike way Changmin leans forward for each bite. He has his injured leg propped up on a chair and the other stretched out across the length of the window seat, most of his body swallowed by a thick fur coat and undershirt. Changmin has some weird aversion to wearing pants, and it wouldn’t bother Yunho so much except that he has these incredible legs. It’s quite distracting, and the worst part is how completely unaware of it Changmin seems.
Yunho shifts, leaning a little closer and frowning in concentration as he feeds Changmin each spoonful. He doesn’t realise his breath is fogging the air until Changmin reaches a hand up and touches his cheek.
“You’re cold,” he says. “Here,” he reaches for the blanket draped over the back of the chair and spreads it over them. The fire has died into embers while they ate but Yunho doesn’t want to move to rekindle it. It’s warm under the blanket, and Changmin seems to radiate heat at his side. He puts the empty bowl down and watches the other man stare out the window. It’s starting to snow, fat little flakes drifting to the ground and gathering on the windowsill. Changmin watches them and Yunho watches Changmin, eyes running over the dark sweep of his eyelashes as he blinks, the curve of his cheekbones, the elegant arch of his nose. After a while Changmin smiles and turns his head to look at him.
“You’re staring,” he says. Yunho blinks, caught and unsure what to do about it.
“You’re beautiful,” he blurts out. Changmin merely looks at him. “Even as a stag I thought you were. . .I wanted your head on my wall,” Yunho admits in a whisper. Changmin’s lips twist in a grimace.
“How crude,” he says dryly. He shifts closer, until Yunho is trapped between his legs and their faces are dangerously close together. “However. Thank you for saying I’m beautiful,” Changmin smiles, some drowsy heat in his eyes that Yunho can’t decipher. “You’re not too bad yourself, for a human.”
They stare at each other for a long moment before Changmin closes the gap between them and kisses him. Yunho stops breathing, stops thinking of anything but the warm lips pressed against his. He lives a lonely, solitary life and it’s been a long time since he kissed anyone, but that’s not why Changmin’s kiss leaves him so breathless. He groans low in his throat and curves an arm around Changmin’s waist, tugging him close until the creature goes sprawling against him. Changmin makes a surprised sound and Yunho swallows it, their lips moving hungrily against each other as the kiss gets deeper, wetter. His hand drops to Changmin’s thigh, stroking the warm, taut flesh until Changmin pulls away with a gasp and throws his head back. Yunho takes the opportunity to lean up and press kisses against his throat, that long, elegant column he’s been aching to touch since the first time he saw him.
They shift, careful of Changmin’s injured leg as he straddles Yunho and sinks both hands in his hair, pulling his head back to gaze down at him. He’s panting, lips red and glistening, and Yunho feels himself drowning in those brown orbs. Words seem meaningless and perfunctory - their lips meet again, desperate and hungry, and as Changmin whimpers into his mouth and Yunho’s hands slip inside his clothes he knows it’s too late to go back.
Yunho wakes some hours later, warm under the blanket with a very naked Changmin wrapped around him. They had shifted to the floor at some point and eventually fallen asleep on his rug. He trails a hand down to Changmin’s thigh and checks his bandage, relieved to find that their activities haven’t reopened the wound. Changmin murmurs in his sleep and shifts against him, his head burrowed under Yunho’s chin.
Yunho stares up at the ceiling, one hand absently stroking Changmin’s arm. He knows he should feel bad for what he’s done, that their union is against nature. Changmin doesn’t belong here with him - he’s a wild creature who belongs to the forest, and Yunho’s dreams of taming him are only a delusion. He knows the second Changmin’s leg heals enough for him to walk unaided he’ll be gone like a shot.
He knows all this, and yet at that moment, warm and sated and with his arms full of the most beautiful creature he’s ever laid eyes on Yunho doesn’t care. He gets up slowly and lifts Changmin into his arms before making his way towards the bed. He lays Changmin down gently, the other man’s eyes briefly opening before he reaches out and pulls Yunho down beside him. Changmin curls up around him again and Yunho pulls the blanket up to cover them, letting his eyes drift shut to the rhythm of the soft, heavy breathes against his ear.
Winter melts into spring, and Changmin’s leg slowly heals to the point where he can walk short distances without the crutch. Yunho watches his progress with apprehension, torn between relief that he’s going to be fine and dread at the knowledge that this means Changmin will soon leave him. It doesn’t help that Changmin himself is so impossible to read - he is both affectionate and cold in turns. Sometimes Yunho gets the impression he would happily stay with him forever and other times it’s as though Changmin can’t wait to leave. He strains against the confines of his human body, of the cottage, even of Yunho’s presence, but then at other times abruptly grows docile, almost needy. The things that make him wild and beautiful also make him unpredictable, but Yunho learns to adjust with his mood swings and forgives his various eccentricities. He would forgive Changmin almost anything.
As the spring equinox approaches he proposes an outing to a spot he’s been wanting to take Changmin to for a while. Changmin can walk well enough with the crutch now and is more than eager to leave the cottage for a while, and so agrees readily. They bundle up and slip out just before dusk, fresh snow crunching under their boots. Though it’s spring the cold never really goes away - the only difference now is that the biting chill of winter blizzards has faded away. Yunho keeps an eye on Changmin as they walk, one hand hovering near him in case he needs help, but Changmin shakes his head and strides along on his own. They reach an outcrop of rock high up in a clearing, a vantage point from which they can see the lake stretching out for miles in an unbroken sheet of ice. But Yunho isn’t interested in looking down - he points towards the sky just as the sun sets over the horizon and Changmin’s jaw drops open, a gasp falling past his lips.
Green and red lights flicker across the night sky in an ephemeral dance of colours. They make an iridescent curtain against the stars and Yunho smiles at the captivated expression on Changmin’s face. It’s a breathtaking sight, and even after all these years Yunho finds himself blown away by the stark beauty of it. It lights the snow and ice in eerie colours that make the harsh landscape look vibrant and alive.
“What is it?” Changmin asks.
“The aurora borealis,” Yunho says. When Changmin continues to look confused he smiles and takes his hand, drawing him close with an arm around his waist. “Northern lights,” he breathes against Changmin’s lips, and learns the wonder of kissing a lover under them.
Yunho knows it’s over the day he wakes to find Changmin hovering over him with that wild, desperate look in his eyes. He peppers his lips with harsh little kisses over and over, as though that’ll distract Yunho from what he’s going to say.
“I’m leaving,” Changmin says.
“But I love you,” Yunho clutches at him, pulls him back down on the bed, and for a while Changmin lets him erase all thoughts of leaving from his head. But afterwards when they’ve caught their breath Yunho can see that look still lingers in Changmin’s eyes. Cold with hurt, he closes his eyes and turns away so he won’t have to watch him leave. He feels Changmin run a hand over his arm, the breath of a whisper against his cheek, and then the bed dips and he’s gone.
You can’t tame a wild thing.
- - -
“I was wrong. You’re not the monster here.”
“Meaning you think you are?”
“I can’t give you what you want. Better that you had never caught me. Better that we’d never met…”
“Don’t say that. Don’t ever say that.”
- - -
Yunho stares into the darkness, Changmin's last words to him repeating in his head like a mantra.
"Catch me thrice and I’ll be yours."