There are, of course, millions of various ways you could die in this godforsaken landscape. Exposure. Losing your way. The ice breaking under your feet and a current pulling you away from the air. Yet here you are, a backpack full of equipment, massaging a hand warmer between your fingers as you lay still as a statue upon the packed snow. Your breath comes out in foggy puffs as you wait, eyes desperately searching for any animals that would cross your path.
And there is your first subject. A rabbit with fur that blends into the snow, cautiously hopping out from a burrow in search of food. It stops to sniff the air, eyes brown as the bark of pine. A clump of snow falls from an evergreen branch, dousing the little animal in powdery white. Its whiskers twitch just before it shakes the snow off its fur, and you could feel its frustration from where you lay.
Waiting for it to approach your range is agonizing, an exercise in patience that would have any lesser person roaring in frustration. But it pays off to stay still because soon enough the little rodent makes its way beyond its usual feeding spot. You take careful aim, moving slowly as your stiff body can manage, closing one eye, and taking in a deep breath. Then you press your finger on the trigger and fire.
Click click click click click click, the shutter of your camera goes off, capturing dozens of pictures by the second, immortalizing that little bunny in digital code. As it hops off, you take the time to go over each image to see how they turned out. The lighting’s good, the alignment seems alright, and anything a bit off can be tweaked in photoshop. Satisfied with today’s catch, you turn around to gather your things for the return to base.
You have a visitor.
A fox is sitting a meter away from you, staring up with tiger orange irises, its blindingly white coat making the snow look dull in comparison. A bit of black fur creates a ring around its eyes, making quite honestly the best-looking eyeliner you have ever seen. Its tail swishes back and forth as it sizes you up, deciding whether or not you would be a threat to its wellbeing, coming to the conclusion that you aren’t. Clearly, it’s not bothered by the fact you are much bigger.
Without a single thought, you switch lenses, your fingers moving deftly on instinct from years of experience. Every movement is tense, anxiety churning around the sense that the fox might simply bolt away at any wrong sound you might make. You fit the second lens onto the camera and start clicking away, firing the shutter as many times as you can until you are satisfied enough to risk fiddling around with the other settings.
It doesn’t move an inch, allowing you to shoot photos from different angles like a well-seasoned model, following you with its large, almost disturbingly intelligent eyes. Only when your body sucks the last bit of heat from the hand warmers do you reluctantly sit down by your equipment case to start the process of packing up. A light breeze stings your face as you shoulder the backpack, the sun sinking a little too close to the horizon for your liking. Two hours of daytime leaves you with a thin window to work, and now that it’s over, you have to go. Pulling out a little GPS, you check your coordinates one last time before heading back to the base.
“Thank you, pretty baby,” you tell the fox as you prepare to leave.
The fox cocks its head as you start off, and soon enough, you hear the quiet pitter patter of tiny paws trying to keep up with your pace as you walk down the hill to your quad. You load your stuff onto the back of the vehicle, pulling the bungee cord over the bundles of equipment while your new friend paces back and forth to the side. Maybe it’s looking for a treat? Even though they’re told not to, sometimes skiers try to toss bits of food to the wildlife. That’s probably why the little guy is still following you.
“Sorry, puffball. I gotta go.” It takes every ounce of self-control in your body not to throw yourself onto the ground and pet the poofy mass of fluff until night comes and the temperature plummets. You start the engine of your quad, pulling out another hand warmer from your pocket while the vehicle takes a moment to sputter. After activating the chemicals and stuffing the little packets into your gloves, you take off.
The Base is an old outpost-turned-research center that houses whoever dares venture this far north. Most of the people who live there are scientists of some breed; electrophysiologists, microscopists, rheologists, and the occasional astronomer passing through on their way to the observatory thirty miles away. People like you, who aren’t at all specialized in a six-syllable niche field that requires ten years of prior study, usually stay only three months before heading back to civilization. It’s been two weeks, and you already miss being able to undress without freezing to death halfway through.
The gate to the Base is guarded by one exhausted looking military personnel, barely bothering to check your ID pass before waving you in. You roll up to the barracks, unloading your camera equipment to the ground before heading to the garage to return the quad. It’s a shack of aluminum that barely holds together against the wind, and with every storm, people throw in a pool of money betting this is it. This is what blows away the garage. So far, it takes on the blizzards in stride, keeping the only forms of transportation safe within.
After dropping your keys on the desk and signing off, you take one step outside to see a fox. Not just any fox, you realize as you look down at its large, perfectly framed eyes and realize that this is yourfox. How the hell the little guy somehow made it here in such an impressive amount of time while still managing to find you is baffling, to say the least, but you roll with it. Nature can be weird, right?
“Hey there, handsome,” you coo, squatting down to its level to get a better look. “What are you doing all the way out here?”
The fox crouches down as though getting ready for a pounce, letting out a little whine. You reach over to pet it, your gloved hands unable to truly feel the amount of fluff the little creature possesses. Its body wriggles with excitement as you scratch at its little black-tipped ears, moving to its chin as it rolls over. As absolutely adorable as it is, your teeth are chattering, and you need to get your butt to a heated room pronto before early state hyperthermia sets it.
The sound the fox makes when you step away- oh god, guilt actually bleeds in your heart. Almost like a cry of desperation, loneliness, and desire for companionship. It brays as it follows you, practically indignantly, as though begging you to stay with it forever.
But it would be insane to actually believe that.
When you try to step into the barracks, the fox tries its damnedest to shove its way up the stairs and to the door as well. Once it realizes you are only loading the equipment inside, not actually going in, it seems satisfied to pace back and forth, watching you with all the intensity of the predator its species is. You have to be sly, pretending to turn around for more pets before slipping the already half-closed door, shutting it as fast as your arms could move before the fox even realizes you are no longer outside.
You can hear scratches on metal, a squeaking cry muffled through the material. Ugh, what is up with that critter? Why does it seem so taken with you? Shame, like you’ve done the fox a great betrayal, punctures your every step as you wander down the pod, luggage weighing you down as you walk to your room. Juggling your things to free one hand, you slip your keycard through the reader, a dull electronic click sounding as it unlocks. Kicking the door to the side with your foot, you shuffle into your room, a delicious blast of heat kissing you on the face.
Unceremoniously, you dump the bags onto the ground, desperate to remove your slightly damp outer layers of clothing. The little room you have makes most college dorms look spacious, but you are blessed to having a single instead of sharing the space with a stranger. Not that you wouldn’t mind, you were fully prepared to make sacrifices when your boss approached you with the proposition, but you still count yourself as lucky.
After you check over the equipment and put everything away, you slip on your inside jacket and start up your laptop. The wifi here, you’ll be honest, is rather sad. It takes some time for your emails to download, so while you wait for any messages from home, you fire up Adobe Lightroom and start uploading your camera’s memory card. While the machines do their thing, you head out down the hall to the common area in search of a hot drink. On the way back, you run into the head reporter of the operation, so you are trapped in a bit of small talk before you can return.
It takes a few hours for you to go through the photos, tweaking the best ones for a better composition, then sending them to the editor for a review. Dinner is being served in the cafeteria, so you head down there for something hot to eat, passing by the common area to get to the moderately sized dining hall. A group of your colleagues already have a table, chatting nonchalantly. After getting a tray of food, you join them, settling on the end of the bench.
You had maybe only had a couple of bites before you hear loud swearing echoing through the halls, and with it, yipping. A blur of white bursts from the doorway, a fox bolting from three pursuers, its claws slipping on the faux wood floor as it spots you. It serpentines away from one of the scientists’ clutches, bounding over to where you sit and hiding between your legs.
“The little bastard bolted inside as soon as I opened the door!” You recognize the scientist gasping, it’s one of the dudes who studies the movement of icebergs.
The fox hisses at him, tail puffing out like someone rubbed a balloon on its fur. With a sigh, you bend over and pick it up, expecting it to immediately try to wriggle out of your grasp. To your surprise, the fox seems satisfied to be held, its little chest heaving with panting breath. It doesn’t seem too heavy, you realize as you pat its back and whisper soothing words. Your pace picks up as you head down the hallway, towards the nearest exit. As soon as it sees the door, though, all hell breaks loose as it kicks and shimmies wildly enough to escape your arms, running a few paces away.
“I might not be a zoologist, but this can’t be normal fox behavior,” you say to the nearest person, one of the wildlife researchers who followed you out of the cafeteria.
“Definitely not,” she agrees, tucking a stray piece of blond hair away from her face. “Something is off with our little friend here, why don’t we try taking him to the lab?”
You make a clicking sound, approaching him like you would a stray cat, gentle, slow, but the fox retreats further, making angry yips at your near betrayal. Losing patience, you stand, remembering how it followed you all the way to the base, and start walking towards the lab on your own. You can hear a panic yelp, something like I didn’t mean it! and sure enough, the scratches of claws against the floor following closely as the fox scrambles to rush after you.
Murmurs from the others reach your ears as you briskly walk back through the cafeteria, a click of a camera shutter sounding as one of your fellow photographers snaps a picture. You step into the next hall, stopping in front of the vet’s lab for the biologist to unlock for you. She slides her card through the reader and the glass doors open with a hiss, a blast of slightly colder air sinking around your ankles like mist.
“In we go!” The biologist chirps, throwing on one of the lab coats hanging on the wall. “Can you put him on the table for me?”
“How do you know he’s a boy?” You ask, bending over and lifting him up. The fox squawks indignantly, but allows you to hold him again.
“I can see just about all I need to when you’ve got him like that,” she snorts, picking up a stethoscope and adding it to the tray of tools she has set out.
“Oh.” You place him gently on the ratty but clean pillow, petting his head in a soothingly as he suspiciously eyes the tray the biologist wheels over.
“Alright, handsome,” she says, pulling on a pair of rubber gloves, “let’s see what’s up with you.”
No more tantrums, surprisingly. Your fox seems to accept his fate, though you can tell he’s sullen about it. He opens his mouth obediently when the biologist checks his teeth, he rolls over to his back so she can listen to his heart, he stays still as he can while she looks into his ears, and so on. Every so often, he’ll look at you with a pouting glare, but never outright acts up.
“He seems healthy,” the biologist says, writing something down in scribbling handwriting. “The only thing I can think of is if he’s one of those domestic breeds.”
“What would a domestic fox be doing this far from civilization?” You ask, frowning as you stroke the spot between his ears.
“No idea. Maybe his owners realized he was more trouble than they bargained for and dumped him out in the wilderness. Happens more often than not.” She shrugs, putting her tools away and disposing of the dirty pieces.
“So what do we do? If he can’t hunt for himself, he needs to stay with us.”
“I agree. Until we can contact a safe zoo or sanctuary, he needs to be monitored here.”
The board who runs the Base are adamant about the ‘storage’ of Puffball, as you and the biologist agree to name him, saying he can’t be wandering around the halls to do as he pleases. That’s fine and dandy, but it turns out Puffball quickly figures out how to escape the cage he gets put in during the night. Though, more surprisingly to the others, he only runs to your room, scratching at the door to be let in.
After the first three times it happens, you are too fed up to lift the squirming critter up and shuffle down the halls to put him back in the kennel. You’ve just accepted that, when this happens, you have to share your bed with a fox for the night. He curls up at your feet, sleeping soundly enough not to be bothersome. Not once has Puffball tried getting in your stuff yet, so you don’t mind too much when you hear the muted yipping of a lonely fox.
When you leave to take photographs, apparently, as the biologist puts it, Puffball goes insane. If he doesn’t hear you moving around in your room, he zips up and down the halls until he finds you. When he inevitably fails, he paces back and forth in the central atrium until you return, getting visibly excited and jumping around until you actually stroll inside. Then he gives you the cold shoulder for at least an hour, making it seem like its a mere coincidence he just happens to be in the same room wherever you go.
“We need to think about getting him neutered,” the biologist says as she gives Puffball a quick checkup.
“What does it matter?” You ask, fitting a lens on your camera before clicking the shutter. Hm. The lighting would look better if you adjusted the lamp just a bit.
“It’s winter. That means his mating season is approaching, and we don’t have a female counterpart. His behavior is going to get much, much worse, trust me.” The biologist taps some information on her iPad. “There is a fox sanctuary about two hundred miles southwest who said they’ll take him, but neither they nor we have the means to get Puffball there at the moment.” The next supply caravan arrives in about a month, and only then could you send him away with someone. Though, you aren’t sure how successful they’ll be in hauling him that far away since Puffball has shown himself to be quite the slippery fellow.
As though he can understand every word and doesn’t appreciate the topic one bit, Puffball narrows his eyes, looking at you with a huffy expression.
“Can you do it?” You ask in an unsure voice, knowing that she is at least versed in basic procedures. It neutering a basic procedure? And would it be alright for you to do that, anyway? It seems to you, for whatever reason, unethical.
“Yup,” she nods, “but the thing is, I don’t really want to risk it. This specific kind of fox is approaching an endangered species status. If I snip him, he won’t be able to help repopulate.”
You adjust the lamp light one more time. “So what do you suggest we do?”
The biologist shrugs. “For now, let’s see how he handles it. If he gets too destructive and becomes a danger to himself, I say we do it.”
The camera fires off another round of photos, each capturing a very distressed looking fox. “That sounds like a plan to me.”
That night, instead of sleeping at the foot of your bed, as usual, he squeezes his way up to your side and lays his head on your chest.
A few mornings later, you left him in your bed to take a shower in the shared bathrooms, teeth chattering as soon as you turned the hot water off. Goosebumps rise on your flesh as you hastily try putting your clothes on, thermal underwear, regular clothes, and a thick sweater of goat hair made in Norway. You gather your things and head back to your room, which you left unlocked, and open the door to see a naked man you don’t recognize standing in its center.
You shut the door. When you build up the courage to yell at him, you open the door again, ready to unleash hell and all its furies on whoever the fuck he thinks he is, only to find… nothing. Well, not nothing, since Puffball is sitting exactly where the man was standing a few moments ago… but no sign of the intruder. You look in your bed. You open your closet, even though there’s no possible way anyone could hide in there. Then, in a final attempt to prove you aren’t going crazy, you look at the storage space under your bed in case he managed to contort himself around your equipment. Nothing.
You sit, cross-legged, and turn to Puffball. “Am I going crazy?”
Puffball cocks his head at you, his tongue lolling to the side in the picture of perfect innocence. Suspicious that he might have gotten into something while you were gone, you take your time putting on your coat and slipping your feet into those heavy duty boots before taking him outside. Three times a day you have to let Puffball run around and do his business, sometimes while you snap a couple of self-indulgent photos if you bring along one of your junkier cameras.
The next night, you already let Puffball in because might as well do it before you actually go to sleep. Pajamas, check, computer asleep to save power, check, a cup of water in case you need it, check. You bundle up under your thick covers and drift off, a headache forming from staring at the screen too much that day. You think you remember the shape of a man beside your bed, his kneeling position high enough to peak his head over the mattress.
“My name isn’t Puffball.”
You must still be asleep. Rolling over, your face is only inches from his, an obsidian mop of hair almost obscuring his tiger eyes from your view.
“Why do you call me that?” He asks, not accusatory, but curious. A shadow behind him flicks, and you realize faintly that he has a tail.
“What would you have me call you?” Is the only thing your exhausted brain can muster up.
“Hikaru.” His pale fingers trace the path of your jawline. “Go back to sleep, you need your rest.”
He jumps back onto your bed, but he is no longer a man. Instead, he is a much smaller, curling up into a little white ball of fluff at your feet, observing you as though you might throw him off and leave. But you go back to sleep (or were you already asleep?) and wake up the next morning, convinced it was only a dream.
You meet with your colleagues in the common area, laptops out as you discuss the articles being written. Well, you, personally don’t exactly get to discuss it, your jurisdiction is more along the lines of figuring out which photos should go where, occasionally showing one to a writer and marking the other options in case the editor dislikes the ones you pick. Armed with a steaming mug courtesy of the drink station, you scroll through Lightroom and favorite any of the photos you think are worthy to show in the article.
Puffball entertains himself by running circles around the common area, jumping up on couches, diving in between the cushions, weaving his way through the chairs your group takes up. He has a chew toy the biologist has stored to comfort any sick animals, though he only wants to play with it if you have it. Sort of like a tug of war game.
Once the group collectively deems today’s work finished, and just as you close your laptop and prepare to head back over to your room, someone taps you on the shoulder. Turning around, you see one of the writers, fiddling nervously with the zipper of his jacket. “I was wondering if maybe… you and I could catch the- ow!”
The writer’s voice cuts off as Puffball rushes over and bites at the man’s pants, teeth ripping through the fabric as he pulls, growling in a tone you have never heard him use before.
“Puffball!” You exclaim, grabbing the writhing fox with one arm. “What’s wrong with you?”
Puffball bears his teeth at the man, eyes like fire as they flash in the artificial light, growling a low warning. The fur on his tails pops upright, a warning sign that he is legitimately pissed. Even though he makes no move to jump out of your hold and attack once more, you tighten your grip around him just in case.
“I am so, so sorry,” you apologize hastily, backing up to the hall. “He’s never like this, I don’t know what’s gotten into him.”
“It’s… fine,” the writer says, and you both know that it’s not fine, but neither of you talks any further as you drag the hissing fox back with to your room.
You toss Puffball onto the ground with an angry huff, sliding your door shut behind you. The fox bounces around the space and hisses irritably, extraordinarily bothered by something.
“What the hell has gotten into you?” You scold, placing your laptop on your desk so it would be marginally safe to Puffball’s rampage. Twisting the chair around, you sit, watching the fox as you try to decide how to proceed. Is this the behavior that the biologist warned you about? Puffball has never been violent before.
A hand is placed on your knee. Not a paw, a human hand, and you look down to see that it belongs to a raven-haired man, slanted eyes the color of fiery amber. You’re too surprised to do anything when he rises just high enough to press his lips half on your cheek, half on your mouth. Trembling now, but not with fear, with surprise, you manage to squeak, “w-who-”
“You know.” He says quietly, and you do. You remember your not-dream last night, his gentle touches, the purr of his voice.
“Hikaru.” Your voice is a whisper.
“Yes.” He has to tilt his head up to kiss your jawline, kneeling between your legs in a position of subjugation.
“You- you are-”
“Yes?” He prompts gently, thumb making little circles on your thigh.
“I don’t…” You wrack your brain, crossing your arms around your chest. “I don’t understand.”
At the sound of a knock, he’s a fox again. Like a snap. As if he was never a man and you are spiraling towards insanity. Hesitantly, eyes never leaving him as you shakily walk across the room and open the door, one of the other photographers holding your camera’s memory card. “You forgot this.”
“Oh, thanks,” you respond numbly, accepting it with a slight smile before shutting the door again. You turn around to Hikaru, who is suddenly back to being a human. You sink to the ground, your back sliding down the locked door, staring at him hard enough to burn a hole through his head. Taking a deep breath, you hold your arm out in front of you and pinch the skin, once, just to be sure this isn’t a dream.
He crawls towards you, the muscles of his arms and back in full display for you and, no lie, it is a good view. You think he might just prowl right through you, but he stops, arms on either side of your legs, face close to your own once more. His breath is warm against the skin of your neck as he leans his head forward, inhaling your scent like a drug.
“What are you doing?” You breathe, your insides turning hot by his presence.
“Showing you.” His lips part as he kisses your neck, his tongue tasting your skin.
Showing me what? You don’t ask, because you’re melting beneath him like ice in the hot sun. His kisses are slow, steady, as though he is savoring your taste. Before you submit yourself, you tense. “Wait- wait.”
Hikaru stops, looking up to see you. “What is it?”
“We need to take a pause,” you scramble out from under him because you can’t think clearly when he’s so, so close. “What exactly is happening? Because I don’t know. I don’t know what this is or what you want from me.”
“Alright,” Hikaru says slowly, “I want to wake up next to you every single day. I want you to come to me when you need help, and I want to come to you as well. I want to tell you all the secrets I possess and trust you with every single piece of my soul.”
Your face is so brilliantly red, you can feel the heat radiating from your cheeks. A spark starts your core, your insides slowly becoming putty under the warm honey of his voice.
“I want you to be my mate. I want to touch every part of your body, I want to kiss every bit of your skin,” his fingers touch your ankle, walking up to your knee, tantalizingly slow, “I want to hear you cry for me as I bring you pleasure over and over again until you can take no more. I want you, and I want you to want me.”
“Oh,” you whisper, processing what he said.
“I would also deeply prefer it if you didn’t neuter me,” Hikaru kisses your hand, carefully pressing his lips on each knuckle of every finger. Tiny bits of stars burst from where his mouth connects to your skin. A shiver of delight runs down your back, and you think you are getting wet.
“Oh. Oh.” You realize.
“Mmhm,” he hums giving you a sly smile.
“I mean- I didn’t know,” you stammer, because oh god, if he has been a man the entire time, every time you muttered something personal, every time you undressed to get changed, every time you browsed something naughty on the web… “Oh, god.”Embarrassment folds over you like a wave.
“Come to the bed,” Hikaru tempts, “I can make you forget all about that man outside.”
“The man?” And suddenly, your embarrassment is forgotten as you process his words. “Steve?”
“Don’t say his name,” his tone isn’t sharp, but there’s a strain underneath “Let me undress you.”
“Are you jealous?” You blurt, a small bit of laughter bubbling in your throat. “Is that what this is about?”
“No.” Hikaru snips quickly, giving you a pouting stare.
“Oh my god, it is.” You step away from him again while shaking your head. “You’re only putting the moves on me now because you’re jealous of Steve.”
“Why would I- there is no reason for me to be… I am so much better than he is!”
You sigh, kneeling down to where he sits, fuming that his tactics failed. Then, just for the sake of doing something unexpected, you lean forward and kiss him on the mouth. When you pull away, he actually whines at the absence of your touch. “Tell you what,” you keep your voice chipper, even though you can almost feel your muscles shaking with anticipation, “if you can prove to me that you’re dead serious about a relationship, then we’ll work something out.”
Hikaru stares at you, startled by your proposition, then gives you a smile of someone who has a stack of aces up their sleeve. “Consider that a deal.”