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It’s early in the afternoon on a quiet, peaceful September day, and Hoseok is outside and hard at work chopping firewood.

He’s about half of a mile out into the thickest part of the forest, half of a mile out from the wooden cabin that he calls home, the cabin that he had built himself and where he lives alone, where he’s lived alone for many long years now. And it sounds sad and lonely to an outsider, maybe, but Hoseok is content with his life, with the life that he’s made, and he appreciates the simple things, is happy to have given up on everything else for this quiet, simple existence.

Hoseok is a man of the woods now, living in complete solitude, living off of the land far away from civilization, or, at least, far enough away that it’s as if the rest of the world has disappeared, or never was to begin with. But he didn’t always live like this, didn’t always live all alone in the middle of the endless forest. In fact, he used to be a part of it, of civilization.

Hoseok once lived in the nearest town, the quaint little village just under twenty miles from here. And he not only used to live there, but he was a central part of the community, and they were his family. But that was a long, long time ago, and a lot has changed since then. And since then, he’s found peace here in the forest, or at least, the closest one can get to peace after unspeakable tragedy that turns one’s life upside down, if it’s even possible at all.

One thing that most helps his peace-of-mind is to constantly keep himself occupied at all times with all of the basic things that he has to do just to survive out here, like, for instance, keeping his cabin warm in the present and preparing for the long, frigid winter soon to come.

Today, he had sought out a tree that was already down from the recent thunderstorm that had passed through a few days ago, Hoseok cautious as always, hesitant to disturb the natural habitat that has given him so much, always trying to take as little as he possibly can from the environment around him, only taking what he absolutely needs and nothing more.

And the tree that he’s found is perfect. It’s old, withered, has seen a long, meaningful life, and when he’s finished here, Hoseok will tie the large blocks of wood into bundles to take back with him to his cabin, where he’ll store most of it for later and use only what he needs for tonight, the perfect way to stay warm on what’s sure to be another chilly evening now that the summer has fully transitioned to fall, the days still hot but the nights gradually growing colder and colder.

The recent storm had been so strong and so intense that it had felt like the Earth itself was shaking with each crackling boom of thunder, like the sky was splitting apart with each blinding flash of lightening, with the torrential downpour that had seemed to soak through everything inside and out, soak it all clean and new, and it had seemed like it would never come to an end until everything was washed away forever.

But even so, Hoseok always loves a good thunderstorm, always loves to sit and to watch from his big, comfortable chair in his living room, loves to watch in total darkness, in awe as always by the magic and beauty, by the power and terror of nature, something that he, like the vast majority of people, once took for granted, or ignored entirely.

And for days afterwards now, it’s been raining nearly every morning. It may be sunny and dry by this time of day, but there had been a light shower followed by a warm misting as Hoseok had been having his breakfast earlier, and as he prepares to chop up the fallen tree that he’s found, he can smell that the soil is still wet, has locked in the moisture and is now giving off that wonderful, damp, earthy smell following every rainstorm, the water still clinging in its final droplets to the leaves and flowers, all of the plant life around him holding on to the precious rain even as the sun bakes it all dry.

Even as he sets up and begins to start working, Hoseok can hear and can see the signs of birds and other little creatures all around him, just like him, coming out to enjoy the sunshine following this morning’s rain, having waited for the rain to pass in the comfort of shelter. They all instinctively know that the rain will pass, and Hoseok admires that about them, something that he wishes that he could have as a person, the unshakable instinct that every storm must eventually end.

Instead, Hoseok is always bogged down by his uniquely human fears and regrets, never sure of himself or anything else, full of doubt, full of insecurity, at a loss for hope, real hope. It’s what got him here in the first place, and he wishes that he could have that same level of faith, that no matter how bad the storm is, it will always pass, and the sun will always shine again. His entire life would be different, he thinks, if he were able to channel that feeling too, that wisdom that only the natural world can hold.

The trees all around him are huge and thick, younger, stronger than the one he’s about to work on, some covered with vibrant green moss, home to dozens and dozens of creatures and plants, and it’s snug and insulating, but when Hoseok is this deep in the forest, it helps to block out some of the heat from the sun, too, to keep the area cool, the treetops so thick that only the softest, gentlest rays of sunlight filter in through the gaps in the leaves, like sprinkles of pixie dust, or something from a fairytale.

Living in the woods for so long now, Hoseok has come to understand why they’ve always been considered a magical place, the setting of so many magical stories and fables. As much as he’s learned to value nature for its stability, for its cycles, he also knows that he alone could never learn all of its secrets, certainly not in one single lifetime or even a dozen lifetimes. And he knows that the woods hold mysteries that humanity as a whole could never fully understand, that there are always new wonders emerging, that the forest holds its own purpose, something that Hoseok is only one small part of, one glimmer of dust in the endless stretch of time flowing all around him.

Hoseok has markers painted on some of these trees, and all throughout the forest surrounding his cabin, a mapping system that he developed so that he never gets lost in the labyrinth that he calls home, his cabin the only human structure for miles and miles in all directions. He’s been all through these woods, carefully marking along the way so that he always knows where he is, and even so, he’s never found another soul living out here.

After all, why would anyone want this when there are so many towns and villages not too far off, with all of their modern conveniences and luxuries, and of course, with other people to live with? But for Hoseok, it’s exactly what he’s tried so hard to separate from, because he’s learned that all of that just makes life more difficult, causes more pain, more suffering.

And so, it’s only Hoseok out here, has been that way since he got here and doesn’t seem to be changing anytime soon. Hoseok hasn’t even seen another person at all in months and months, not since those hikers last spring who had wandered too far away from the public trails and into the untouched wilderness where Hoseok lives, and he had helped them kindly, but had also warned them that he wouldn’t be able to do anything if they got lost anywhere deeper into the woods.

He had felt bad about it, sure, some part of him that still clung to the past, when he was soft-hearted, gentle-hearted, caring about everyone else even against his own best interest, the way that he naturally was, a kind soul, the way that he used to be back when he lived in the nearby village, a part of himself that he was always trying to push away, to push down deeper and deeper until he could forget about it entirely. He knows better than anyone else that having a deep, caring heart just means that he gets hurt all the more easily, and all the more terribly.

Hoseok has learned to live well with his new life, with his new outlook, and he must admit, there’s something comforting about it, about being alone, about the routine, about how nothing ever really changes, day in, day out, everything in a cycle, doing the same things day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. That’s something so profoundly different about the natural world and human civilization, Hoseok has come to realize.

Nature is content to just be, to be the same as always, but people are always seeking out the new, the exciting, pushing further, reaching higher, and for Hoseok, it’s a comfort, to let go of it all. It was what made being alive exciting, what gave it purpose and meaning, sure, but was purpose ever really necessary? Why does living have to even have a purpose, a meaning? And now, Hoseok is content to just live, to just be without direction, to let his life go wherever it takes him now.

And yet, there’s this other part of him, deep down inside, that still screams, that still yells to be heard, that he’s missing something, something important, that this isn’t the end, that he needs something more, and Hoseok wonders if it’s just the old him, or if it’s something that is him, that’s inherently part of him.

And what can he say? Living out alone in the woods, he’s had a lot of time to muse over questions like these, to think about the how and the why, and then, to let it all go, to accept that he doesn’t have the answers, and maybe will never have the answers. Maybe he doesn’t want them anyway, doesn’t even need them, and it’s not the answers or even the questions that are what’s important, but instead, what is, and that’s how Hoseok is set on living his life now, for better or worse.

Living out here is hard, being completely self-reliant is hard, but there’s a peace to it, an immense, deep satisfaction, and despite whatever it is that he might be missing, what he has gained is significant too. He often feels like he’s become a part of the forest itself, living in perfect harmony with everything in it, and yet he often finds himself looking out into the trees at night, wondering if he’ll ever find that mysterious answer that he’s seeking, if it’s hiding somewhere in the dark, in the trees, if he’ll even be able to recognize it when he sees it, or if this is it, and he’ll never quite feel like he’s found his place here, no matter how satisfied he thinks he’s become.

He puts on his protective gloves made of thick, black leather and picks up his ax; it’s old but reliable, freshly-sharpened, well-balanced and durable. Unlike most of what he owns, he hadn’t made the gloves and the ax himself. They’re some of the possessions that he’s brought with him from his old life when he decided to start his new life out here, and they’ve been with him ever since. Despite his best attempts, there are still always certain things that he can’t do without, certain man-made luxuries, and he acknowledges his own weakness in that way, but he does the best that he can, tries to improve as much as he can, always.

Hoseok swings his ax and gets to work breaking the tree down into smaller pieces to be able to work with, grunting from the effort as he uses his great strength to split the trunk into sections, his mind soon going blank as he loses himself in his work, satisfied by each loud crack in the wood as it breaks apart easily. When he’s got the tree broken into small enough pieces, he starts hauling them one by one over onto a large tree stump that he fashioned long ago into a flat, table-like surface, smooth and durable, and from there, he gets to work preparing his firewood.

He works for a long, long time, loses track quickly, the only noise besides the loud sounds of the ax splitting the wood and coming down hard onto the tree stump being the noises that he makes himself, his deep grunts of effort, his low sighs and heavy breaths as his muscles flex and strain, the bare skin of his arms, neck, and face soon growing sweaty and dirty, and he pauses after some time to remove his tight, white t-shirt, slightly damp with his sweat and sticking to his hot skin.

He peels it off and wipes his face with it before tucking it into the back pocket of his worn-out jeans, enjoying the cool air on his bare skin, naturally pale no matter how much time he spends outdoors in the sun and easily flushed from the exertion.

He pauses for another moment before he begins again, heart beating steadily as he breathes in and out, hard and heavy from his work. A few minutes later, he pauses again, laying down his ax to take a drink of cool water from his canteen, Hoseok closing his eyes as he drinks, his Adam’s apple bobbing as he swallows, water dribbling down his chin and neck, down onto his chest, and when he’s done, he lowers his canteen back to the ground, picking up his ax again and ready to get back to work.

He starts swinging his ax, now working shirtless and much more comfortable, his muscular arms and the muscles in his chest and back flexing as he goes through the motions over and over again of chopping, splitting, hauling away, picking up the ax and starting all over again.

He had already been in good shape before he came here, always proud to take good care of his body, but since beginning his life here all those years ago, he’s gone beyond simple body-building for aesthetic purposes, and he’s now become something of a physical marvel. He doesn’t just look strong; he is strong, exceptionally strong, solid, rugged, and with his handsome features and soft eyes, his dark hair and the mysterious, sultry quality to his gaze, to his entire being, life in the forest has only enhanced his beauty.

Hoseok knows full well that he’s good-looking; how could he not when he had always attracted so much attention from the girls (and the boys) back in the town where he once lived? Though, truthfully, he never returned the interest. Sure, he’d flirt and he’d sleep around, with both men and women, but only for the physical release, never getting too attached to any of them, because he knows that he’s an all-or-nothing kind of person, and has always been afraid of completely losing himself in someone else for fear of getting hurt, and so he’s never let even a little bit of himself go, never pursued anything serious in the arena of romance and sex.

He’s certainly never been in love, is not even sure that he can understand what it means to be in love, though he certainly knows what it’s like to love someone, to care about them, because he had his family and the love that he felt for them, his parents and his sister, and the love that he had for his town and everyone in it. But that wasn’t romantic love, of course, and even back then, it was like there was always something missing, something that just a simple romantic relationship wouldn’t be able to fix. No, Hoseok has always needed something deeper, something...purer than that.

Even so, that was all a long time ago, almost like an entirely different lifetime at this point. No, not almost. Truly like an entirely different lifetime.

Hoseok’s body is covered in a thin sheen of sweat that glistens in the sun as he keeps working, his dark hair and the back of his neck damp, and he gets smeared in dirt very quickly as always from chopping wood. He never quite understands how it happens, but soon he’s got dirt smeared on his cheeks and his forehead, all over his arms and his chest, as if he had been rolling around in the dirt rather than simply standing on it.

He pauses for a moment, pulling his dirty t-shirt from his pocket to wipe his face and his forehead once more, but it doesn’t do much other than to smear the dirt further, but at least it absorbs some of the sweat, makes him slightly more comfortable, and it’s no matter anyway. He’ll take a long, cold shower when he gets back, imagines it for a moment as he replaces the t-shirt back into his back pocket, panting slightly and peering out at nothing in particular in the trees ahead of him, breathing in the crisp, fresh air of the forest that he can no longer live without.

Even with the protective gloves that he wears when he does manual labor such as this, his hands have become rough and calloused, his body scarred and battered from all of these years in the woods. But he can’t deny that despite the tough exterior that he’s developed, he’s still got that soft, gentle heart that feels deeply for everything around him, those profound feelings that he gets even now when he’s just staring out into the trees, the love that he had once felt for a town full of people now directed towards the endless expanse of the forest.

He had come out here after what had happened hoping to find himself, after so long unable to understand how or why things had ended the way that they did, but it seems at least on the inside, he hasn’t really changed much at all, just pushed those painful, undesirable parts of himself down deep as they can go, planted like roots in the soil that will never grow, that he won’t ever let to grow again if he can help it. And yet, even now, he’s still trying to find himself, but with less urgency, less need for it, at peace with the possibility of never knowing.

He keeps working, losing himself once more in the simple actions of swinging his ax, for nearly an hour, stopping occasionally to catch his breath, to drink water, to wipe his face, to watch the sky change colors as the afternoon moves to early evening, to listen to the birds begin their evening songs and the forest slowly grow quieter and quieter as the daytime animals turn in for the night, and soon, the late afternoon sunlight casts a deep, golden glow all around, vibrant orange tinged with purple and red.

He’s almost finished now, with a nice, big pile of wood that he’ll soon carry home a bundle or two at a time. He’s already in the middle of planning the rest of his evening as he places his ax down and begins tying the bundles together with rope, nice and tight so that they won’t slip when he carries them on his broad shoulders.

He plans that after he cleans himself up, after he showers and washes his soiled clothes and hangs them to dry outside, he’ll get the fireplace going with some of this fresh-cut wood, and thinks that maybe he’ll have a nice, strong drink and listen to music for a few hours from the old record player of his, another item that he’s stubbornly kept from his old life. Now that he thinks about it, he supposes that he has hung on to a lot more than he would care to admit, his music in particular. Music is something that he could never bring himself to give up, no matter what happens, not in a million years.

He’s got the bundles all tied and ready, two large bundles that he nonetheless feels confident that he can handle carrying back at the same time, and he pauses for a moment to wipe his face again with his t-shirt, still panting, his heart rate slowing from his hard work. He’s out of water, so the trek back to his cabin will be a bit tiring, but at least he knows that he’ll be done for the day, and he’s already dreaming about his cold shower and has decided upon something non-alcoholic to drink after all, like lemonade or even just ice water. He thinks rather than sitting and listening, he’d rather just drift off to sleep early with his music guiding him to his dreams in the background.

It’s then, while he’s still deep down in his thoughts of a soft melody, his thoughts of the different, softer world that he sees in his deepest dreams, one that he tries his best to reach but that he knows is likely unattainable, that he suddenly feels the distinct sensation that he’s being watched.

It comes like a sudden whisper on the back of his neck, and over his bare arms, and he pauses in wiping down his face, frowning, standing up straight, eyebrows furrowing as he stares out into the trees. He waits for a long time, absolutely still, looking out carefully to be sure that it wasn’t just his imagination, and he sees nothing, but it’s undeniable that he’s feeling something, the strange sensation rising goosebumps on his skin from a gentle wind that isn’t there as he listens hard for any sign of life around him. He hears nothing, still, and yet, the feeling persists.

Hoseok knows with certainty that he’s not alone. He’s definitely not alone.

He stands there for a long time, completely still, wondering if he’s being stalked by something, or if he’s really just being watched, if he should run, or if he should back away slowly. He’s had encounters before with the wildlife in these woods, of course, but has always followed the golden rule to live and let live, to leave the animals be because this is their home too. It’s never gotten dangerous, thankfully, despite his encounters with dangerous creatures, because Hoseok has always understood that no matter how long he lives, he’ll always be a visitor here, that that’s his curse as a human being to never truly belong in the wild. But Hoseok respects that, and he lives with it, and so he doesn’t move, giving the opportunity for whatever’s watching him to move on or to come to him instead if it so wishes.

Hoseok waits and he waits, anticipates sudden movements, maybe a low growl or snarl as the creature comes to drive Hoseok away from stumbling into its territory, or to warn him to run before getting too close to its babies. But as Hoseok stands there, and nothing at all happens, the feeling remains, grows stronger, even, and Hoseok starts to think that maybe he’s got it all wrong. Maybe whatever is watching him right now isn’t after a meal or defending its territory. Maybe it’s not an animal at all, but something else, something not altogether wild.

Whatever it is, it’s definitely watching him closely, staring, and it occurs to Hoseok then that perhaps he’s the one who seems threatening. Maybe whatever is watching him is afraid, scared, waiting for Hoseok to leave before daring to make a move, waiting for Hoseok to disappear from view before it feels safe to come out at all. Or maybe, perhaps, it’s got no fear at all, but no ill-will towards Hoseok either.

Maybe it’s shy, but not upset or frantic or scared. Maybe it’s curious, maybe whatever is watching Hoseok right now is simply lonely, simply looking for some company, some comfort, just as Hoseok is, just as everyone is in this world. Perhaps it’s a baby animal wandered away from its parents, curious from having never seen a human like Hoseok before. Or perhaps it’s a creature that’s dying, seeking help from a stranger but not understanding how to ask, or what it even means to ask for help. It’s human behavior to help others in need, of course. Nature, on the other hand, lets events take their own course.

The more that Hoseok focuses, the stronger that he can feel it, which is still not very much, only just the sensation, the presence, something that he’s sure that he can feel only because he’s grown more aware of and sensitive to the world around him since moving his life out here. Even so, he can tell that the presence is watching him very, very carefully, that its eyes haven’t left Hoseok since it got here, that whatever it is is just as interested in Hoseok as Hoseok is in it, and as he waits, he still doesn’t feel any hostile intentions, and his heartbeat starts to steady as he relaxes, his adrenaline cooling.

And Hoseok keeps standing there, waiting quite a while longer, his soiled shirt bunched up in his hands, Hoseok wondering which of the two of them will make the first move, if any, and then, as suddenly as it had arrived, it’s suddenly gone. Hoseok can feel the presence disappear like a wisp of smoke, like it was never there at all. But even so, it’s left something in its place, something that Hoseok can still feel like an afterthought, like an unfulfilled promise.

Hoseok wonders what on Earth it could have been, what on Earth just happened, whether he’s just exhausted and imagining things, whether he’s making a big deal out of something as innocuous as a squirrel or a bird, having spent too much time out here today without a break, in need of a shower and rest and a few tall glasses of cold water to clear his head followed by a good night’s sleep.

He tucks his shirt back into the back pocket of his jeans and moves what’s left of the fallen tree out of the way of the path, hauling the heavy trunk over to the side and his sore, exhausted muscles straining as he places it carefully in the bushes, deciding that one bundle will be enough for tonight and leaving the other with the fallen tree to retrieve tomorrow. He hauls one of the heavy bundles up onto his shoulder, grunting with the effort and holding his ax in the other hand, and it’s then that he suddenly feels the presence returned, feels those same mysterious eyes in the woods watching him silently.

Hoseok turns around for a moment, turns back, looking all out and around himself for a long time, looking carefully and listening carefully just as before, but he still doesn’t see anything, still doesn’t hear anything, and he can still feel it, the presence, and above all else, he doesn’t feel right about leaving, feels like it’s the entirely incorrect thing to do, feels like something, some force is pleading with him, begging him to stay.

But he swallows it down, and he turns back to the path, starts heading home, trying to return his attention to reality, to what he knows to be true, to the home that’s waiting for him, but unable to ignore the presence that he still feels following him through the forest as he leaves his work behind until tomorrow.

The presence stays with him the entire time, watching him, but he also feels it growing fainter, until eventually, it disappears again, whatever it is having turned away and left. And Hoseok feels almost...disappointed about it. No, more than disappointment, he feels grief, a sorrow like he’s lost something very precious to him.

Hoseok sighs to himself as he makes his way home, his mind going over all of the possibilities, just to give himself something to think about to distract from the intensity of what he’s feeling, and the fact that he can’t even begin to explain any of it. But whatever it is, whatever that presence needs, Hoseok hopes that it’s alright, that it stays safe, because the woods can be very dangerous at night for a small creature all on its own, and Hoseok already feels an urge to protect his new friend out in the forest.

The next day, when Hoseok goes back to his special work spot in the forest for his other bundle of firewood, he waits around for a while to see if the presence from yesterday will return. He’s disappointed, but not surprised when it doesn’t, and from there, after he returns home to his cabin with the rest of his firewood, he heads off to an entirely different section of the forest, to the nearby stream to collect water, as much as he can carry at a time to use for drinking, cooking, bathing, and household chores.

The water from this stream in particular is especially wonderful, crystal-clear and so pure that when Hoseok drinks it or bathes in it, it still feels like he’s washing away the darkest parts of himself, like he’s being reborn into something brighter and better. He soon gets lost in what he’s doing, hums a quiet, soft tune to himself, a sweet melody that reminds him of a time long, long ago, of a fountain in the middle of the town square, as he lowers a large bucket into the stream, allowing the gentle current to fill it up, Hoseok watching fondly as the beautiful water glitters in the early morning sunshine, Hoseok breathing in the stream’s deep, clean scent and sighing.

He had mostly given up on a repeat of the strange experience that he had had yesterday, after a long shower and a long, deep sleep, followed by the lack of a reunion this morning, and so he’s turned his attention back fully to his usual thoughts, his usual tasks, that is, until he’s pulling the first full bucket out of the water and placing it down, reaching for the second one to fill when he suddenly feels it again, the same sensation, that same presence. It’s exactly the same, a prickle on the back of his neck, a whisper in his ear that he can’t quite make out.

He stops what he’s doing and he doesn’t move. It’s the same thing as yesterday, he knows it absolutely, without a doubt in his heart.

Hoseok puts the bucket down and stands up slowly, sure to not make any sudden movements, and he still doesn’t see anything at all as he carefully looks all around him. He wonders how it found him here, in this completely different part of the forest, if it was an accident, a strange coincidence, or if it was looking for him, if it was following him. And of course, he still wonders what it even is, if it’s anything at all.

He looks around again, carefully, so, so, carefully, but still, nothing happens, and he still doesn’t get the sense that he’s being stalked or hunted, just watched, observed. Hoseok swallows hard, blinks once, twice.

“Hello?” he asks, turning around and looking carefully through a different section of the trees. He’s gotten quite good at being able to spot even the best-camouflaged animals, but he still doesn’t see anything at all, nothing out of the ordinary, doesn’t spot any subtle movements and doesn’t hear much of anything unusual either. It really is just a feeling that he’s having, all just a feeling, and Hoseok is still wondering if it’s all in his imagination, if maybe he’s getting sick or maybe he’s going crazy.

Hoseok waits another few moments and then slowly, carefully crouches back down and reaches for the empty bucket to fill with water, staying on alert and keeping a part of his attention on the presence even as he goes a few uneventful moments back into his work, losing himself in random, innocuous thoughts. But it’s then, after he’s filled the second bucket and stood up once more, preparing to go back home with two buckets full to the brim with cold water, that something new happens.

For the first time, Hoseok hears it, whatever it is.

He hears footsteps, so soft that at first, he mistakes them for the gentle whisper of the breeze. But they’re too deliberate, too steady, and then, he hears them again, and he knows that it’s not just the wind that he’s hearing, but something just as light and free, just as swift and gentle as the wind. And it must mean that it’s close, now, close enough that Hoseok can hear it. It’s moved closer to him than it was before, has been the one to approach Hoseok first.

Hoseok stops again, freezes in place and then turns around, still sees nothing, even though he can now hear it moving softly, even though he’s now got a decent idea of where it is around him. He puts the buckets down and faces the direction that’s his best guess of where the presence is hiding, trying his best not to appear too threatening, since he knows that he can come off as intimidating and he doesn’t want to scare it away.

“Why don’t you come out?” Hoseok says, voice soft. He smiles gently as he looks around, hoping that the creature will see it and understand that his intentions are kind. “I won’t hurt you.”

Hoseok feels the presence still watching him, still observing carefully, and nothing at all happens for a long time, and after a while, even the sounds fade away, and the presence begins to grow faint again, as if it’s hiding. And then, it disappears, out of reach once more, gone off somewhere else, and Hoseok sighs, defeated as he reaches for his full buckets of water to carry home. But it’s on his way back that he has an idea, an idea that has him shortly returning a few hours later to the same spot in the forest, this time, with an offering to his mysterious watcher, his mysterious admirer.

Hoseok has brought a basket filled with soft, fluffy bread that he had baked himself just a few days ago, spread with his own homemade strawberry jam, so sticky and sweet that it would make even the shyest of animals come out of hiding for a taste. He leaves the basket by the water, exactly in the same spot that he had been working in before, and even as he does it, he knows that it’s a bit delusional to think that some other animal won’t just take it before Hoseok’s mystery creature gets the chance, or that Hoseok would even know if it did. But he wants to try anyway, and he knows that it will know, that it will understand that this is meant as a gift, as a sign of good will.

Hoseok hesitates before he leaves, not even entirely sure what he wants to happen, exactly, whether he wants anything or nothing to happen, whether he wants for it to be confirmed that it was all in his head or that he really has struck such a strange, new connection, whether he wants that bread and jam to be there untouched or devoured when he returns.

He comes back a few hours later, and his heart skips a beat in his chest, Hoseok grinning when he sees that the basket was opened and that the bread is gone, in its place nothing but crumbs, and, as he crouches down to take a closer look, he sees a small, white flower placed inside, just the blossom without a stem, a kind of flower that he’s never seen before in these woods, so white that it’s almost difficult to look at, and his heart starts to pound in excitement, wondering what it could mean. Still, he’s confident that this was the same, intelligent creature that has been watching him, that this wasn’t some squirrel or racoon or anything else.

Over the next few days, Hoseok repeats the process, leaving various treats out for his new friend, mostly bread and pastries at the same spot by the stream, his gifts always returned with the same white flower, and Hoseok brings them back with him, surprised at how the flowers don’t wither despite the fact that they have no stems, no roots. He places each blossom in a basket on his nightstand beside his bed, looks at them every night as he drifts off to sleep, and as he collects more and more of them, they begin to give off a beautiful scent, too, something that Hoseok can’t quite describe as anything other than completely intoxicating, like pure joy and light, like all things beautiful in the world condensed into the tiny, delicate petals that glow even in the complete darkness of his bedroom.

As for Hoseok and his mysterious friend, they’re never there at the same time anymore, not really, not like before, but sometimes, Hoseok can feel glimmers of its presence, as if it was just there moments ago, or as if it intends to return shortly, and his head spins, his thoughts day and night always about what this mysterious creature could be and why it’s making him feel this way, feel such a strong and unshakable connection. He wonders if it’s waiting for him somewhere where he can’t feel its presence anymore, if it’s hiding itself, though at this point, Hoseok can’t imagine why.

It’s on the eighth day of this strange little routine of theirs that something finally changes, something finally happens.

Hoseok returns as usual to retrieve the basket that had contained the buttery, cream-filled pastry that he had dropped off several hours ago, expecting to find the crumbs and the flower as usual, but instead, when he returns, the pastry is still there, completely untouched. Hoseok frowns, wondering what it means, and then worrying that something bad may have happened. But it’s then that he feels the presence again, for the first time in so many days, and as he turns to its source, this time, he sees a light in the distance.

It’s faint, at first, and Hoseok doesn’t know if he’s actually seeing anything different or if it’s just the sunlight reflecting off of the leaves, or off of the clear water of the stream, or if he’s simply just imagining it, wishful thinking. But the light is beautiful, white and glowing, otherworldly, too pure, too bright to be just a reflection, and Hoseok freezes in place, as if the light is holding him there, unable to move even if he wanted to. He wonders if this is it, and somehow, he just knows it for a fact, that this is the creature, the presence that he’s been bonding with over the past week.

The light doesn’t move any closer, still several yards away in the distance, but Hoseok realizes now that this is the closest that the presence has ever been to him, the closest and the strongest, and it must have been doing something to hide itself before, to diminish or cloak itself, because this light is so bright, so intense, that it can probably be seen from space, and Hoseok just stands there, stunned, drawn towards it like a helpless insect, and he waits, completely still, the only sound the birds around them chirping and the bubbling of the stream, and Hoseok feels like his heart has stopped, his breath caught tight in his chest.

After a few long moments, the light begins to move closer, and it’s so bright that it almost hurts to look at, just like the flowers that it’s left behind for Hoseok to collect, and as it gets closer and closer, Hoseok’s heart starts to beat rapidly, his breathing going shallow. He starts to feel dizzy, but it’s wonderful, like he’s suddenly drunk or high, like he’s drowning but he loves it, and the light grows even more intense, so intense that Hoseok nearly feels like he’ll collapse, until it gets just a few steps away, and then, the light begins to fade, and begins to take a shape, a very specific shape, the shape of a beautiful, beautiful boy.

He’s simply the most beautiful person that Hoseok has ever seen in his entire life, more beautiful than anything Hoseok could’ve ever imagined or dreamt up, small and perfect, with almost feminine lines to his body, with sharp yet delicate features and smooth, pale skin like porcelain, with full, flushed cheeks and dark, intoxicating eyes that look deep into Hoseok’s own like he can see right into Hoseok’s soul. Hoseok can’t help but to wonder if this is the creature’s true form, or if it was a form created just for Hoseok, pulled from the depths of Hoseok’s deepest desires.

The boy has an underlying grace to his expressions, to every tiny movement and every single breath that he takes, flowing like water, like the pure, perfect water of the stream that Hoseok loves so much, and it’s like he’s glowing from the inside out and from the outside in, bathed in that same pure, white light like starlight as he approaches and his form gradually takes on a corporeal, solid state.

As the boy gets closer, Hoseok can see that the boy is not actually all that much shorter than him, but the boy’s body is so slight and slim, and Hoseok himself so big and muscular, that as the boy approaches, their size difference is significant, and Hoseok is overcome with the urge to protect this perfect, delicate creature. He just seems much too vulnerable, much too innocent and at the mercy of the world that Hoseok knows can be cruel and unforgiving. At the same time, Hoseok feels an immense power to this boy, something radiating from within, as if he’s got an entire galaxy, the power of a billion stars behind his gaze as he stares at Hoseok and moves in step by step, slowly, as they lose themselves in each other’s eyes.

The boy is wearing a sheer white dress that’s very nearly see-through, like thin, spun clouds, so much so that Hoseok can see that he’s completely naked beneath the fabric, his body like some perfect little doll, stunning to behold, the kind that Hoseok can only ever recall seeing in paintings from centuries ago, the ideal vision of fantasy with beautiful lines and planes, all smooth and soft, all magnificent, ethereal.

The boy is flushed slightly from the heat trapped in this part of the forest, splashed with pink at his throat and down his chest, splashed with pink over his full thighs supple and soft like fresh-picked fruit, his nipples like pink little rosebuds, his diminutive length on full display and like everything else about him, beautiful in an innocent, overwhelmingly pure kind of way. He’s barefoot, too, walking like he’s floating over the soil, with translucent white wings that glitter in the afternoon sun.

Hoseok can’t help but to gasp as he takes in the vision of this boy all at once, feeling like he’s been paralyzed by his sheer beauty. The boy is just so beautiful, he’s like everything that Hoseok has ever dreamed of, everything that Hoseok has ever wanted without even realizing it, all wrapped up in one splendid, breathtaking form.

The boy stares at Hoseok, and Hoseok stares back, Hoseok’s breath still caught in his chest and his heart pounding so hard that it’s painful. He’s got goosebumps all over, but it’s a wonderful kind of chill, combined with a strange warmth, a mix of sensations that’s hard to decipher, hard to detangle, and he wants to say something to this boy, anything, as the boy walks towards him slow and graceful, but Hoseok finds himself rooted to the ground, unable to speak, unable to move, held in place by his fascination, him and the boy maintaining eye contact the entire time.

And in the boy’s eyes, Hoseok sees everything, sees the answers to everything swirling in their depths, if only he could read them, if only he could truly understand, but he knows that they’re there, he can feel it so clearly. He wonders briefly if he’s dreaming, if this entire experience from the beginning was just one long, deep dream, but as the boy stops within inches of Hoseok, and Hoseok can feel the warmth radiating from his body onto Hoseok’s, from that beautiful, white glow, Hoseok knows that this is real, that there’s no way that his mind alone could have ever conjured all of the incredible things that he’s feeling.

The boy is cautious at first, as if he’s afraid, hesitant, ready to bolt at any moment, but as he moves even closer, his eyes take on a certain glow, and he seems to sense and to confirm that Hoseok is not dangerous, and before Hoseok knows it, the boy has backed him up against a tree without a single touch, just by the push and the pull of those magnificent eyes of his, pushing Hoseok’s body back and pulling Hoseok’s gaze in, rendering him unable to look away.

It’s extraordinary, and from there, they still don’t move or touch, even with only a few small inches between them now, the tree bark rough at Hoseok’s back, Hoseok overwhelmed by the scents of everything around him and this boy, the boy’s scent like a thousand different flowers, like the white flowers that he’s been leaving for Hoseok times a thousand. And while Hoseok is all rough edges and tough, hard planes, this boy is all grace and elegance, like he’s made of the wind itself, and Hoseok is afraid to even touch him at all for fear that he’ll break.

The boy, in contrast, is not shy at all about touching Hoseok, at least not now that he’s decided that Hoseok is safe, that Hoseok is not a threat. The boy tilts his head slightly as he considers Hoseok in front of him, and his hands find their way to Hoseok’s chest, the boy’s fingertips light and gentle, palms sliding up slowly from Hoseok’s sculpted abs as he keeps staring deep into Hoseok’s eyes.

From there, the boy begins to stroke over Hoseok’s prominent pectoral muscles slowly, as if committing them to memory, the boy’s soft hands brushing lightly over Hoseok’s hard nipples, and Hoseok sucks in another breath, because he can feel his face growing hot and his heartbeat increasing, Hoseok always a mess at keeping himself together, at keeping his emotions and his physical reactions to stimulation in check.

But thankfully, it seems that he’s not the only one. The beautiful boy’s cheeks are still flushed a soft pink, the softest shade that Hoseok has ever seen, but his eyes are fluttering too, with desire, with the tremors of a racing heart, and before Hoseok can take another breath, the boy is suddenly leaning forward and kissing him, both of their eyes fluttering closed at the same time as their lips meet.

The boy’s lips are unbelievably soft, and he tastes like sugar, like pure sweetness, and Hoseok finds himself immediately addicted as the boy kisses him over and over again, soft and gentle, and it’s then that Hoseok carefully brings his hands to rest on the boy’s hips, even softer and more delicate than they look, the fabric of the dress so thin that Hoseok can feel the boy’s bare skin like he’s not wearing anything at all, and despite all logical, rational thought of what is actually happening here, Hoseok forgets everything and loses himself to the moment. Hoseok kisses back.

And Hoseok is completely swept up in it all as he grips onto the boy’s hips tighter, Hoseok’s whole body flushing with warmth as the boy begins to caress his chest and to kiss him more passionately, once, twice, three times, four times, the boy moaning softly into Hoseok’s mouth, so softly, his lips wet and plush, the boy’s little body getting hotter, and soon, Hoseok is kissing back with passion, too, his arms winding tight around the boy’s waist and pulling him in closer, the fabric of the dress like water in his arms, like he’s holding on to the rain, the boy’s body trembling in Hoseok’s embrace as the boy’s hands cup Hoseok’s cheeks, the boy’s hands so soft as they stroke over Hoseok’s face.

The feeling is indescribable, each kiss like drinking sunshine, filling Hoseok up with the most incredible feelings, until he’s hypnotized by it, consumed by it, unable to remember ever feeling anything else.

They kiss deeply, passionately, tilting their faces in tandem, strangely intimate and intense, emotional, like they’ve been lovers for centuries, for millennia, and as they kiss, Hoseok begins to see visions flowing through his mind’s eye, images and sensations cloaked in white smoke, in a haze like clouds before a storm.

Hoseok sees the beautiful boy splayed beneath him in the wild grass of some distant field far from here, the grass so green and soft that it’s like silk, the boy naked with his wings opened up fully and sparkling in the moonlight, crying diamond tears as he clings to Hoseok’s back while Hoseok makes love to him.

But then, a moment later, Hoseok is the one lying back in the grass, and he sees the boy above him, perched on Hoseok’s thighs, Hoseok buried deep inside of him and holding on lightly to the boy’s waist as the boy undulates his hips and bounces, the boy’s skin glowing white, the backdrop of the night sky like a painting sprinkled with stars and planets, and Hoseok feels like he’s glowing too, like whatever power lies inside of this boy is connecting the two of them together.

The visions flicker fast through Hoseok’s mind as they keep kissing, growing increasingly intense and indiscernible, one after another of them together in different places, different settings across time and space, places that Hoseok has never seen, places that Hoseok has never, could never even imagine, until they’re just pure sensations, and Hoseok moans loudly, pressure building behind his eyes, tears of joy or sorrow or frustration or relief, or all at the same time, he isn’t sure.

His heart is pounding so hard now that it feels like it’ll burst, and Hoseok can feel his pants growing tight, and as he moves one hand down low towards the boy’s backside, a shot of heat ripples through him as he feels the fabric of the dress damp with the warm, sticky wetness of what Hoseok realizes to be self-lubrication, Hoseok unable to believe it, this entire experience like some wild, heated dream, and yet, it also feels like the truest experience, like the most real and alive that he’s ever felt.

They keep kissing and touching, and Hoseok feels like he’s wound up tight, like he’s filled with energy, a bright warmth that’s about to burst from deep within him, not sexual despite what they’re currently doing, not sexual at all, but something like euphoria, like despair, like everything that he’s ever felt and ever will feel rolled into one, and Hoseok feels like he’s going to collapse, his pants so tight that it’s painful, when suddenly, the loud bang of what Hoseok guesses to be a hunter’s gunshot crackles through the air.

The boy immediately pulls away from Hoseok, his eyes wide and glowing white, and he vanishes in an instant, in a wisp of white smoke, and Hoseok is left panting up against the tree, bewildered, confused, stunned, chest heaving as he comes down from the most bizarre and the most exhilarating experience in his life. His lips tingle, and his fingertips ache, and he feels a deep, deep grief, like he’s lost the most important thing, the most precious treasure to his heart. He lowers his head and closes his eyes, his hair hanging down damp with sweat in his face, and he focuses on his breathing.

Hoseok stays there for a long time, paralyzed like that before he finally pulls himself together and goes home, and even when he does, he can hardly think straight, can hardly function, can’t do anything other than sit in his chair in his living room in silence, unmoving as he stares straight ahead at the wall, his mind going so fast that it’s almost as if it’s gone silent, almost as if it’s gone blank.

And later, when Hoseok finally gets into bed and tries to sleep, he simply can’t, and so he lies there staring at the ceiling in the dark for hours, nearly all night, because he just can’t wrap his head around what happened, his heart unable to calm itself, and he feels like he’s crossed some great threshold, but he knows that it’s not the end of it, no, not at all. It’s only the beginning.

He’s never felt this way before, about anyone or anything, and yet he just knows it, that something extraordinary has found its way into his quiet, sad little life. And it’s not until the very early hours of the morning that his body finally gives out from exhaustion and grants him just a few hours of sleep, enough to function when he wakes, but not nearly enough to stop him from feeling like he’s going crazy.

Over the next few days, Hoseok tries again and again to make contact with the mysterious, beautiful boy, does the same thing that he did before, leaving out fresh bread and pastries, all manner of treats, but ever since their heated encounter, and the boy’s sudden, frightened disappearance, the boy does not return, and Hoseok’s offerings go untouched, Hoseok unable to even feel the lingering effects of the boy’s presence anymore, much less find him again.

It seems that the boy is no longer watching him, no longer following him, no longer reaching out, and Hoseok feels something far beyond disappointment, deep and aching, and he grows increasingly worried, wondering if it was him who drove the boy away, if he did the entirely wrong thing by losing himself to passion, if he had made a terrible, terrible mistake, or if, perhaps, he had imagined the whole thing after all.

But still, something inside of Hoseok won’t let him just give up. Something inside of Hoseok urges him to find this boy again, to do it if it’s the last thing that he does, to find him no matter the cost, if only to apologize for getting carried away, if only to make sure that the boy is safe and alive.

And even though Hoseok continues to see no sign of him, no trace, the days going by with Hoseok unable to feel anything of the boy’s presence at all, Hoseok keeps trying, keeps offering everything that he can, even stands there, in their spot, desperately yelling out into the trees, knowing that if the boy is there, if he’s anywhere nearby, that he will hear him, Hoseok’s eyes wet with tears, his heart heavy and his sorrow burrowing down to his bones like he’s lost a loved one forever, and it certainly feels that way, even if Hoseok can’t explain it, can’t explain why, he can recognize this feeling perfectly for exactly what it is. It’s a feeling that he knows all too well.

It’s only after about another week passes that Hoseok finally gives up on trying to win back the attention, the affections of that beautiful boy in the woods, sadly comes to the conclusion that the boy was scared off by the noise or by Hoseok and won’t be returning to this part of the woods any longer. And Hoseok may stop trying to find him again, but he can’t stop wondering if there was something that he could’ve done differently, and even now, every time that he closes his eyes, all he can see is that boy’s face, his beauty, and at night, when Hoseok’s lying in bed about to fall asleep, he can feel it all again, the boy’s touch, his body, the taste of his lips, how magical it was, how extraordinary, feelings that Hoseok has never felt before stirring in his heart, unable to quiet no matter how hard he tries to push them down and away.

The truth is, Hoseok has never felt this way about someone before, and to feel this way about a boy that he doesn’t know, a stranger in the woods who might be something more than human, is of course something that he’s never experienced. But it doesn’t bother him, the intense attraction that he feels, doesn’t cause him doubt or denial. He’s always been one to appreciate love as something beautiful and natural, real and powerful no matter what form it takes or for whom, and especially now, when he’s feeling it so intensely himself, he can’t deny that love truly doesn’t judge, doesn’t discriminate.

And it shocks him, but it is the very real truth, that he’s in love, and his heart aches now in the way that only a broken heart does when a great love is lost, slipped through one’s fingers like sand. He supposes that he’s not so content with his life alone here after all, how could he be when he found something that felt so much like a piece of himself that he didn’t even realize that he was missing?

A few more days go by after that, and by now, Hoseok has gone back to his usual routine, all alone, uneventful, the memory of his extraordinary experience faded to something weak and surreal, detached like a distantly-remembered dream, even if he still feels it as glimmers on his fingertips, even if he could never really forget it when the entire experience has been etched into his bones, every detail in full clarity behind his eyes. Still, it’s much easier to just pretend, to go on as if nothing has changed.

Today, he’s just a few hundred yards out from his cabin, in what could reasonably be called his backyard if any of it really belonged to him, his cabin still in plain sight. He’s out collecting herbs and plants for his first-aid kit, some of the natural offerings that he has learned to have medicinal properties, as well as others to be used for things like cooking and cleaning.

And suddenly, completely out of nowhere, Hoseok feels it again, strong and bright and clear as ever. The beautiful boy in glowing white, that beautiful creature, so much more than human and the only thing that Hoseok truly desires now. Hoseok knows it immediately, without a doubt, that it’s him.

The boy has returned to these woods, and he’s nearby, so close that Hoseok can feel shivers run up his spine, so close that Hoseok feels like he can hear the beating of the boy’s heart pounding somewhere out there in the trees. Hoseok places his basket gently on the ground, alert and looking out into the wilderness, unable to entirely believe it, wondering if it could really be true, or if it’s just another trick that his pathetic, broken heart is playing on him.

But something is very strange this time, very unfamiliar. Something about the presence that Hoseok feels is much different than before, than Hoseok ever remembers feeling it. He would swear that it’s almost as if the presence is distorted, or unstable, like it’s fading in and out, clear one moment, gone the next.

Hoseok feels a great sense of unease, then, a panic, knowing instinctively that the boy is in trouble, that he’s hurt, that something horrible has happened. Hoseok understands then that the boy never left the woods at all, has been hiding his presence this entire time, is only making himself known now, revealing himself now for one reason. And Hoseok realizes then exactly what it is that he’s feeling, why the presence is so different this time. This time, the presence he feels is a desperate cry for help.

Without another moment's hesitation, Hoseok drops everything and rushes into the woods without looking back, focuses only on following the trail, on going exactly where his instincts lead him.

And Hoseok is flooded with adrenaline, with an intense, sharp dread of what he’ll discover as he runs deeper and deeper into the forest, following the path that he’s being guided on from beyond his own volition, not stopping, not even breaking a sweat, not even flinching as he’s scratched and scraped by the ever-thickening of the forest around him, closing in as he gets further and further away from his home and into the deepest, wildest, completely untouched parts of the forest.

Hoseok breathes heavily as he keeps going, pushing branches and plants out of the way to keep moving forward, his footsteps loud and heavy on the ground as he runs straight ahead like he’s been hypnotized, unsure where his feet are even taking him. All he knows is that he has to keep running, has to keep running and running and running if he’s to save him. And Hoseok has to save him, he has to. Hoseok won’t be able to go on if he doesn’t.

It’s at that moment that Hoseok suddenly finds himself in a clearing in the middle of the forest, and he breaks to a stop, kicking up dirt all around him and panting heavily, stomach dropping at what he finds there in that large, empty space.

The clearing is surrounded by trees, thick as ever, and it’s obvious that the space hasn’t been cleared out by anything man-made; it’s much too crooked, too jagged, uneven, a space cleared out by something entirely natural, organic, like some great storm or some great beast barreling through, leaving only the dark soil and nothing else in its path, not even the grass, and the ground gives off a strange, sinister sort of energy, like the whole spot has been scorched, but not with fire. With darkness. With evil.

And right in the center of the clearing, lying motionless on the ground, is the beautiful boy, Hoseok’s beautiful boy, but he’s no longer glowing as before, and Hoseok can see immediately that the boy is badly hurt. His beautiful white dress is in tatters, torn in large swatches, the fabric barely clinging on to his naked body, and his wings are torn, stained with blood, red as Hoseok’s own, and his eyes are closed, his mouth slack, his face streaked with dirt and blood.

The boy has a large, thick blood stain right over his heart, too, growing and spreading over his chest, now pale and colorless, white as paper. There’s blood trickling steadily from his nose and ears, from his closed eyes, and he doesn’t appear to even be breathing. Hoseok immediately drops down to him, heart in his throat, examining all over him quickly, and then, his hands shaking, he bends down, rests his ear over the boy’s delicate chest, the blood still wet and sticky against Hoseok’s face, still warm.

Hoseok closes his eyes and listens with all of his might, his knees sinking deep into the soil beneath him, Hoseok praying to whatever god or deity might be listening, his eyes growing wet as he hears nothing but silence. But it’s then, after a few moments of focus, of intense, intense focus where he blocks out all sound around him, where he holds his own breath and ignores the sound of his own pounding heart, that he hears it, the heartbeat. Faint, and weak, but undeniable.

Hoseok’s beautiful boy is still alive, but only just barely.

Hoseok goes into survival mode, then, adrenaline taking over once more as he tries not to panic, tries not to cry as he carefully moves to take the boy into his arms, cradling his tiny body and scooping him up, standing carefully with the boy resting in his arms bridal-style so that he’s as comfortable as possible, the boy so light that he almost feels weightless. Hoseok just hopes that they can make it to the cabin in time to save the boy’s life, if he’s even able to accomplish such a feat when the boy has already lost so much blood, his back sticky and soaked through with it in Hoseok’s arms, Hoseok realizing with horror that whatever pierced the boy’s chest went right through him and out of his back.

It’s at that moment that Hoseok is suddenly overcome with an intense, awful feeling out of nowhere, an immense, overwhelming dread, a sickness, a weakness, like everything good and happy within him, like his very lifeforce has been forcefully sucked out, and he turns just in time to see what appears to be an enormous cloud of thick, black smoke, growing bigger and bigger by the second, formless, shapeless, but powerful, vibrating with intensity, with the same sinister energy as the ground beneath him, and Hoseok realizes then that this is the menace, the creature responsible for clearing this area so brutally, the creature that attacked the boy now dying in Hoseok’s arms.

Hoseok quickly turns away, shielding the boy as the smoke surrounds them, stabbing all over Hoseok’s body and surrounding his face, saturating the air, filling Hoseok’s lungs and making him cough and choke, feel dizzy like he’ll collapse, but Hoseok just keeps his head down and keeps fighting, endures it and holds on, starts running, even as the smoke barrels after him, clearing everything, destroying the forest in its path.

Hoseok keeps running, just as fast and as hard as he had before, all the way back to his home, though he knows that his simple cabin won’t be able to do much to protect them from this thing, that he and his entire home will likely be destroyed, but what else can he do? He’ll never just give up, not in a million years. If he’s going down, he’ll go down fighting, and protecting this beautiful, innocent creature in his arms the best that he can.

And he continues running further still, on one last bit of hope that he has to escape, fast and hard and desperate without stopping, ignoring his own pain, his own injuries, ignoring the way that his head pounds and bile churns in his stomach, ignoring the way that his legs burn and his chest aches, Hoseok focused only on moving, running without looking back.

Hoseok eventually makes it to the cabin, and he pauses, panting hard, breathing so hard that it’s painful in his lungs, his legs shaking, and he’s struggling at the door when something in him makes him turn, then, turn back to looking, and he watches in horror, holding the boy close to his chest as the smoke draws closer, as it surrounds the entire area of Hoseok’s land, as it starts to cover the entire sky and the surrounding forest and everything there is in darkness.

And Hoseok just stares, frozen, paralyzed, clutching the boy close in his arms, waiting for the inevitable darkness to swallow the both of them, when suddenly, he feels movement, he feels the boy stirring weakly in his hold, and he looks down, stunned.

The boy’s eyes open slowly, only halfway, and he lets out a soft, quiet moan, Hoseok watching as the boy lifts one of his hands weakly towards the smoke, his hand covered in his own blood, and the boy’s eyes begin to glow white, and his fingertips begin to glow, too, and he feels so warm, suddenly, in Hoseok’s arms, feels like he’s coming to life with something intense and powerful, an energy strong enough to match the smoke creature, and maybe even stronger.

And then, with what must be the last burst of life left inside of him, the beautiful boy in Hoseok’s arms sends an enormous ball of white, glowing light barreling towards the smoke, so bright that Hoseok is blinded by it and has to turn his head away and close his eyes, the boy then collapsing unconscious, Hoseok turning back and opening his eyes to see the smoke dissipate as the entire area is filled with the bright, blinding light upon impact.

After a few moments, the smoke is gone, faded away and scattered, the world and the woods settled back to their quiet, peaceful silence. But Hoseok knows that the smoke will be back, he can feel it, can feel its intention to return lingering, its intention to return for the boy, and for Hoseok, too.

Hoseok quickly takes the boy inside, Hoseok’s heart still racing and his head still spinning about all that just happened, his mind buzzing with questions, and he brings the boy to his bedroom right away, carefully laying the boy down on his bed, soaking his blankets and sheets with the boy’s blood, but Hoseok doesn’t care about any of that one bit, because the boy is coughing up black bile and moaning, still bleeding from his eyes and his nose, his eyes squeezed shut in pain, and he’s drenched in sweat, the blood stain on his chest growing larger and larger.

Hoseok allows himself to panic for exactly five seconds before he takes a deep breath and gets to work.

He tears the dress off of the boy’s body, strips the boy naked and throws the stained fabric out of the way and onto the floor, immediately applying pressure with a clean towel to the wound on the boy’s chest, Hoseok praying for the bleeding to slow, praying for mercy, praying to be able to save the boy’s life. Hoseok’s got his own pressure pounding at the back of his head, his heartbeat like steady drums in his ears, and he’s feeling bloated at the backs of his eyes, a string of sobs working its way through his chest and throat, but he just grits his teeth and holds it all in even as the tears sting at his eyes, because there’s no way that he’s going to lose it right now, and there’s no way that he’s going to let this boy die here. Not here, not today.

Eventually, after a long time where Hoseok hovers over the bed applying pressure to the boy’s chest while his own heart feels like it’s in his throat, the bleeding slows enough that Hoseok is able to begin to clean and bandage the wound, applying some of the medicinal herbs and plants leftover in his first-aid kit. He’s cleaned out now, and he remembers suddenly the basket that he left in the forest, something that had seemed so important at the time but now feels like nothing at all.

As Hoseok disinfects and then cleans the wound, getting a closer look and anxiously wondering if it will need stitches, he sees that it doesn’t appear to be a laceration at all, but rather, a strange void in the boy’s chest, certainly not something that Hoseok could fix with a simple needle and thread. It’s clearly otherworldly, supernatural, like everything about this boy, like everything about this situation, and Hoseok can only hope that his very basic, very earthly bandaging will be enough to help it to heal.

To Hoseok’s great relief, the boy seems to be breathing steadily now that he’s lying down, and he seems to be stable, no longer knocking on death’s door, and so Hoseok gets to work cleaning up the rest of him, wiping the blood and the dirt from the rest of his body and his face, taking care of his other injuries and wounds, all very minor compared to the one in his chest. Hoseok has his own injuries to tend to as well, but thankfully, the worst that he’s got are some shallow cuts that he can wait to take care of until when he gets a moment, no need for immediate attention.

When the boy is all cleaned up and stable enough to have safely fallen asleep, his breathing going deeper and slower and much less strained, Hoseok carefully tucks him into the bed, making him as comfortable as he possibly can despite the fact that the boy is sleeping in a drying pool of his own blood, Hoseok afraid to move him too much right now lest he aggravate the wound in the boy’s chest, and so it will have to do for the moment.

And from there, Hoseok doesn’t have a clue at all about what to do with the boy’s fragile, damaged wings. They’re all torn up, ripped like butterfly wings, and Hoseok is afraid to even touch them, afraid that he might damage them further if he tries, and so he doesn’t, but he hopes that they can be saved later on, can be healed with the rest of the boy’s body. The truth is, he doesn’t know the first thing about caring for wings, doesn’t even know what kind of creature that this boy is or if his wings can even be restored once they’re damaged like this. Hoseok can’t help but to think that they’re beautiful even now, and Hoseok remembers what they had looked like in their prime, when they had glimmered like crystals.

Hoseok stays there with the boy for a long, long time, Hoseok on his knees at the side of the bed, Hoseok’s heart unable to stop pounding hard and his breathing still heavy with worry, the adrenaline refusing to die down, and Hoseok just stays there, watching him, watching each rise and fall of the boy’s chest beneath the blankets, each twitch that the boy makes in his sleep, each soft noise that he lets slip from his plush lips, for hours, until long after the sun has begun to set outside and the room has grown dark. Deep down, Hoseok knows that he’s afraid, afraid that he didn’t do enough, and afraid that if he leaves the boy alone even for a moment, that smoke creature will return to finish its work.

Eventually, long after Hoseok has had to turn on the light and has started to grow woozy, from dehydration, from ignoring his own wounds, Hoseok finally works up the courage to leave the boy’s side, vowing to return in just a few minutes. He doesn’t think that he’ll sleep much tonight, but he’s determined to stay by the boy’s side, won’t leave no matter how exhausted he is, will sleep the best that he can sitting up against the side of the bed, right beside his little sleeping beauty. They managed to escape from that terrible smoke, for now, at least, and the boy has to make it through the night, he just has to. Hoseok doesn’t know what he’ll do if he doesn’t.

After drinking enough water that he feels sick from it, Hoseok goes into his bathroom to take care of his own injuries, pulling off his dirt and sweat and blood-stained shirt and examining himself carefully in the mirror. It’s only then that he notices something extremely peculiar, a strange, dark patch on his chest, a shallow void similar to the one on the boy’s chest but much smaller and not bleeding. It seems to be pulsing with that same sinister energy, and it’s hot and painful to the touch.

Hoseok frowns, wondering what it could possibly be, what it could possibly mean, other than the obvious, that it came from that awful smoke attacking him. He wonders who this boy that he saved, this boy that he’s fallen so quickly in love with, really is, and what that smoke creature was, and what exactly he’s gotten himself into. Hoseok sighs as he finishes cleaning himself up and puts on a fresh shirt, switching off the light in his bathroom and making his way back to his bedroom.

As his eyes fall on the boy resting quietly in his bed, already looking much better than he had when Hoseok had brought him in, Hoseok can’t help but to think that whatever’s going on here, whatever he’s just become a part of, his life is changed forever now, and he’ll never be the same.