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(don't fear) the big bad wolf

Chapter Text

Red.

Red as freshly-bloomed roses. Red as maple leaves on the cusp of snapping off the branch to litter the forest floor. Red as his cloak billowing behind him in the stiff, cold wind.

Jimin follows the trail, even as fear builds up inside him, even as he aches to turn around and return to the warmth of his cabin. Compelled by some otherworldly force and his own curiosity, he marches onward, forcing himself through the calf-high snow and ignoring how wet his boots and trousers have become despite how they make him shiver.

He pushes through a copse of bracken into a small bower enclosed by tall, overlapping birch and evergreen trees. The moonlight Jimin had been using to light his path is snuffed out, leaving him shrouded in almost complete darkness. In its absence, everything seems amplified: the cold bites deeper, the wind tugs at him harder, and the heavy breathing he thought was his own is louder and stinks of rotting flesh.

Something moves in the dark, and a quiet noise of fear escapes his throat. He’s answered by a low growl and a flash of eyes in the shadows. Jimin screams and stumbles backward, tripping himself on a vine. He crashes to the ground, hitting his shoulder on a large rock. The pain is immense, but he ignores it in favor of curling in on himself, throwing his arms over his head to protect what little of his person as he can.

He lies, terrified but resigned, in wait for the animal to come and ravage him, anticipating the press of teeth against his jugular. Stupid of him, to expect any other outcome; he knew better than to enter this part of the forest.

His mother had always told him he was too curious for his own good, that someday, it would probably get him killed. Fortunately, she had come to her own untimely end more than a year ago and would not have to know of the consequences of his stupidity. Still, he hates to have proven her right.

He wonders if anyone from the village will remember him. Will they come looking for him? Will there be anything of him left to identify, if they do?

Will they even care?

He waits for what feels like a lifetime, body tense and eyes shut against the horror about to befall him—the attack never comes. He remains unspoiled, his body whole and intact except for where he had fallen against the rock.

Dumbfounded but still wary, Jimin unfurls from his fetal position and sits up, angling his body towards where the animal’s labored breathing and other sounds of distress echo. His eyes squint into the darkness, trying to see what manner of creature he had stumbled upon. Perhaps it was harmless, and he was worried for nothing. Wouldn’t he feel silly, cowering from a raccoon, or a weasel?

Jimin stands and picks his way deeper into the bower, ignoring the quiet voice inside his mind telling him he should turn around, go home, and forget everything. Yet, despite all logic, he finds himself unable to do so, his curiosity piqued even more, now that he’s out of immediate danger.

He makes his way slowly, toeing the ground for more stray vines and other debris he could trip over. The farther he walks, the louder and more aggravated the noises become, the creature warning him to stay away, but still, nothing moves to attack him. He’s positive whatever it is, it’s injured and unable to do anything but watch him approach, and it’s this knowledge that gives Jimin his courage.

Suddenly, he’s forced to a complete stop, his boots bumping against something solid. A terrible snarl rips through the air and Jimin hears the snap of teeth close to his ankles, can feel the power behind those jaws.

Fear anew thrums through Jimin’s body like he were a plucked violin string. This is no raccoon. He crouches low to the ground and scuttles backward until he’s cornered himself among the roots of a large tree, staring out at whatever he had disturbed, wishing for a sliver of light to illumine the answer.

Stupid, he admonishes himself. You’re so stupid!

The wind shifts then and with it, the trees. They toss their heads to-and-fro, allowing moonlight to shine through the thick canopy, and finally giving Jimin the answer to the question he’s been asking.

He thinks he preferred ignorance, for no more than six or seven meters in front of him lies a large, black wolf, its amber eyes trained on Jimin. Its lips are pulled back from its jowls in a grimace of pure malice.

Jimin gapes at the wolf in awe. How lucky is he, to still be alive. The strength in the wolf’s paws alone could have ripped him to shreds; its canines, long and sharp, would have severed muscle from bone as easily as a hot knife slices through butter.

It takes only a few seconds for Jimin to realize why the wolf hasn’t attacked: it’s grievously injured, its left-hind leg caught in a bear trap; Jimin can see where white slivers of bone peek through fur matted with blood. He stares at where the jagged edge of the trap’s chain lies on the ground. Somehow, it had been broken. Whether it’s further proof of the wolf’s great strength or the shoddy work of an incompetent blacksmith, Jimin is thankful he never had the chance to find out.

Taking a deep breath, Jimin forces himself to crawl out of his hidey-hole and face the wolf head-on. The wolf startles, shrinking back and letting loose a warning growl. Its injured leg is jostled by the movement and the growl tapers off into a whine of distress. More blood oozes onto the ground, staining the snow in a fresh gush of red. The wolf whines again, turning on Jimin to lower its muzzle to the wound to lick up excess blood and soothe away the hurt.

Jimin’s heart goes out to the wolf. Against all better judgment, he wants to help. Seeing such a wild, beautiful animal chained down like a common beast hurts in a way Jimin can’t explain. The question is: how? He has no medical supplies on hand, and no way to get the beast out of the bower and back to his cabin.

Searching the forest floor for what’s available to him, Jimin comes up with a solution. He moves quickly, gathering up branches and evergreen boughs large and strong enough to support the wolf’s weight, lashing it all together with strips of cloth ripped from his cloak.

His task finished, Jimin leans back and wipes the sweat from his brow with the back of a hand, and does a quick survey of his craftsmanship. The stretcher is crude but sturdy. If he goes slowly, he should be able to manage.

The hardest part will be getting the wolf to cooperate.

Jimin brings the stretcher over to the wolf, who has been watching him the whole time with a keen and wary eye, and drops it with a huff. The wolf looks from it to him and growls. Jimin ignores it and tries to slide the stretcher under its front paws, hoping to prompt it to move forward. The wolf shuffles away instead, its injured leg caught in the trap dragging along the ground with a hollow, screeching sound of metal; the whimper that echoes from the wolf’s chest nearly breaks Jimin’s heart.

“Please.” Jimin crouches low to the ground, looking the wolf in its eyes. “I’m only trying to help you.”

Still, the wolf refuses to get onto the stretcher, its dark gaze filled with distrust. Jimin sits there, helplessly, not knowing what to do next but refusing to give up.

He doesn’t know how long they exist in this stalemate. As he and the wolf stare at each other, the wind picks up more and the sky closes in on itself, big, dark clouds swallowing up the light until all Jimin can see are the glowing eyes of the wolf. It grows even colder, and large snowflakes start to fall from the sky, quickly blanketing the bower in startling white.

“Please,” Jimin says again. He shivers in his tattered cloak. “Please. You’re going to die if you don’t come with me.”

With a short growl that sounds more annoyed than anything, the wolf drops its gaze, looking instead at the stretcher. It cocks its head to the side in such an adorable display of contemplation, Jimin almost forgets he’s sitting only centimeters away from a fearsome killer.

The wolf slowly pushes itself onto its front legs and pulls itself forward; Jimin hardly dares to breathe. It paws at the evergreen boughs as if to test their strength, nosing at the red ties binding the whole thing together. With a final glance at Jimin, it collapses onto the stretcher with a grunt as if to say well, get on with it, then. Jimin can only nod in response, far too astonished in the wake of the wolf’s compliance to form words.

He picks up the stretcher and starts the long, slow trek back to his cabin. It’s hard, laborious work, the stretcher awkward to hold onto and heavy from the combined weight of the fauna and flora. The weather doesn’t help, Mother Nature seemingly set against him as the tempest rages, the wind lashing at him and the snow so thick in the air, Jimin can hardly see where he’s walking.

His hands bleed where the rough bark of the tree cuts into his skin. His back burns where it’s bent uncomfortably. His legs scream with every step he takes. He’s so frozen, his joints feel stiff, and there’s a cloudiness in his mind that’s making it hard to concentrate. All he wants to do is lie down in the snow and sleep. Still, he struggles onward, chasing the faint glow of candlelight shining through his cabin’s windows.

Jimin shoulders open the door and drags the stretcher the last few steps to the fireside. He drops it and collapses to the hearth, barely able to feel the stone beneath him through his deadened senses.

Even here, next to the fire, he’s cold, his skin crackling like ice over the surface of water. Maybe that’s where he really is, and he never made it to his cabin. He fell somewhere in the forest, maybe next to the lake not far from where he lives, and now, nature is trying to reclaim him.

He drifts, his mind far afield, his consciousness tumbling around with the waves that lap against the rocky shore as his body struggles to hold on.

Wouldn’t it be ironic if he died after having tried to prevent death? That’d surely give people something to laugh about. Jimin would laugh, too, if he could. If he wasn’t in so much pain.

He feels himself slipping further, the waves cresting higher. They’re nearly above his head now, and it’d be so easy to surrender, to close his eyes and let the water fill him up, to float here in this place, to—

Something snuffles by his ear, hot breath fanning over his skin. A wet tongue laps against the side of his face, saliva sticking in his nose and eyelashes. Jimin lashes out with one hand to shoo the pest away. The backs of his fingers brush across soft fur wet with snow, but the skin underneath is warm.

His body rejects the death pall slowly darkening his vision. He turns in his watery grave, desperately seeking more of that warmth, clinging to it with greedy hands as the cold is leeched from his body.

A growl rumbles against his chest, and suddenly, rationality slams into Jimin like a fist to the side of his head. All too clearly, he remembers where he is, what he’s done, the wolf he'd saved and brought back to his home. The wolf he’s now holding onto tightly, his face pressed against its soft neck, his fingers buried in its thick fur.

Jimin springs away from the wolf to the other side of the hearth. It watches him go, bright eyes dancing with the fire, mouth open and panting. It looks almost like it’s smiling at him, laughing at him.

Jimin doesn’t feel like laughing, anymore.

There’s a wolf in his house. What kind of idiocy had possessed him, to think this was a good idea? Out there, it had seemed like the right thing to do. Now, as he watches the wolf stretch out across his hearth, paws reaching for the fire, Jimin can only think one thought: what do I do now?

Chapter Text

In the light of morning, the wolf—a male, Jimin had learned—isn’t any less intimidating. He seems to fill the whole cabin, his presence looming like a shadow in Jimin’s periphery: a specter come to whisk him away to Hell. Jimin tries not to let his unease show, concerned about aggravating the wolf more, but he can’t deny he hasn’t been tempted to reach for the crucifix he’d kept nailed to the wall even after his mother’s death. Unlike her, he had never put much stock in religion, but that was before he had invited a hellhound into his home.

Jimin hadn’t slept well the night before. He woke up constantly, afraid the wolf would gobble him up in his sleep. The wolf, however, had slept like the dead. Every time Jimin checked on him, he was in the same spot as before, stretched out on his side with his paws close to the fire. He hardly even seemed to breathe. Eventually, Jimin had relaxed enough to fall into his own deep slumber, only waking up to the sounds of crows arguing in the trees and the wolf trying to scratch the cabin door open.

No, the wolf isn’t any less terrifying. What the wolf is, though, is infuriating. Not only does his door now need to be repaired, but due to all the movement of trying to break free, the wolf had bled all over his floor, staining the flagstones a rusty red Jimin’s not sure will wash out. When Jimin had offered him breakfast, the wolf had first turned his nose up at it but then ate Jimin’s when his back was turned.

Now, he’s hiding underneath the table, hackles raised, and lips pulled back in a snarl as Jimin approaches him with a large pair of shears, the only thing he’d been able to find strong enough to cut through the metal of the trap. What should be an easy, quick job, the trap being poorly made with cheap metal, is becoming increasingly difficult as the wolf won’t stop moving.

“You need to stay still,” Jimin says through clenched teeth, trying to remain calm as the wolf moves farther away from him, tucking himself deeper into the corner. “I need to get that trap off your leg.”

He almost has it, the blades of the shears bookending the hinge of the trap. He’s about to make the cut when the wolf jerks his leg back at the last second. Jimin almost snaps it clean off.

“You insufferable thing!” Jimin throws the shears down. “Die, then, for all I care.” He stands and turns his back on the wolf, moving over to the sink to start cleaning up from breakfast, seething under his breath about a certain, stubborn animal with a death wish.

Behind him, he hears the scrape of metal against stone then soft footsteps padding towards him. He tenses, wondering if, at last, the wolf would deal the killing blow. It was stupid of him, to turn his back to the wolf.

Jimin turns to meet him, hand clutched around the handle of a carving knife for protection. Instead of gleaming fangs, he’s met with the wolf pressing the handle of the shears into his free hand with a pathetic whine. Jimin blinks down at him, stunned into silence. The last twelve hours have been a constant up-and-down because of the wolf’s fickle whims and his own seesawing thoughts about it all; he feels almost dizzy from it.

“I need to sit down,” he says weakly and drops himself into a chair, his forehead falling to the table with a loud thunk. He closes his eyes and prays for it all to be over, to open his eyes again and see nothing but a clean, empty cabin, and no wolf within sight for leagues and leagues.

He doesn’t get his wish. The wolf limps after him and lays its head on his knee with another pathetic, heart-wrenching whine, and nuzzles Jimin’s hand still holding the shears. His gaze is contrite when Jimin looks into his eyes.

Jimin sighs. “Alright. Only if you promise to sit still this time.”

Just as he expected, the shears make short work of the trap, the metal giving way easily. Jimin eases the wolf’s leg from the trap and surveys the damage. The puncture wounds are large and deep but clean-cut, the teeth of the trap being thankfully smooth instead of serrated. “You were lucky,” he scoffs as he sews up then cleans the wounds, dressing the wolf’s leg in a cloth soaked in a poultice to protect against infection. “You’ll be okay.”

The wolf’s ears perk up and he limps over to the door, turning to look at Jimin expectantly. When Jimin doesn’t stand up right away, the wolf begins pacing in front of the door and pawing at it, a growl building in his throat.

Jimin doesn’t understand his hesitation, either. He’d done what he could for the wolf and now, he should return him to the wild where he belongs and be rid of this headache. Yet, as he watches the wolf favor his injured leg and sees the blood already beginning to seep through the linen wraps, he knows he can’t let the wolf leave. If he did, the wolf would be vulnerable to other predators and susceptible to illness. Jimin would hate himself if the wolf got further injured or worse, killed, because he was too eager to be rid of him.

He can’t believe he’s about to say this, but he really feels he has no choice. “I’m sorry, but I can’t let you leave yet.”

The wolf first looks angry, the glare he turns on Jimin dark and foreboding. Then, resignation seems to pass over his features. He deflates, ears falling to lie flat on his skull and tail sagging between his legs. He slumps to the floor, looking up at Jimin through sad, pleading eyes. It would be cute if it didn’t make Jimin feel so uncomfortable. He’s never met such an expressive animal. Sometimes, the wolf seems almost human.

“I know it’s not ideal,” Jimin says gently. “But you need to rest.”

The wolf snorts.

Jimin starts to feel annoyed. The least the wolf could do is be grateful that Jimin saved his life, instead of giving him flack for it. “You’re my responsibility now, so if you get hurt, it’s on me. I know you’re a big, bad wolf who can take care of himself, but not when you’re like this. Let me help you.”

The wolf rolls his eyes and grumbles. Jimin thinks, if the wolf could talk, he would make some wisecrack about Jimin’s weakness in comparison to his own, even despite being injured.

“Stop whining,” Jimin scolds, even as he feels ridiculous for doing so. He can’t believe he’s bickering with a wolf. Maybe all this is really a dream and he’s going to wake up any minute now feeling silly. It’s the only logical explanation for all the strange things happening in his life. “You’re staying here and that’s final.”

The wolf surges to his feet, suddenly on full alert, a growl tearing through the room. Jimin shrinks back, heartbeat thundering in his chest. The wolf turns his back on Jimin, though, focusing on the door instead, growl growing in volume and ferocity. After a moment, Jimin realizes the wolf is reacting to something outside the cabin.

Jimin pulls himself to his feet and slowly approaches the wolf.

“What is it?”

A loud knock sounds at his door.

Jimin, startled, jumps back from the door; the wolf follows, placing himself between Jimin and whoever stands on the other side of the wood, his body tense and coiled low to the ground like he’s about to charge.

Another knock, this one louder, and then a gruff voice: “Jimin, open up; I know you’re in there.”

At once, Jimin’s apprehension bleeds into exasperation. Of course, it’s Daesuk; he never misses a chance to ruin Jimin’s day. He wishes he could just ignore him, but Daesuk is a persistent man and would probably bust Jimin’s door down if he didn’t respond.

He briefly thinks about letting the wolf at him, but quickly casts that thought aside. The other villagers are already trying to think of any reason they can to finally oust him from the community. Setting a wolf on one of its most important members would be a quick path to get himself extradited. Or worse.

A third knock nearly shakes the house down around them. The wolf steps towards the door, murder in his gaze. Jimin, without really thinking about it, drops a hand to the top of his head, ruffling his fur to soothe the wolf.

“It’s only Daesuk,” he says with a casualty he doesn’t feel. He pets the wolf again and finds it helps calm him, too. “He’s not worth all this fuss; it’s okay.”

The wolf’s next growl sounds unsure, but he defers to Jimin and backs off a fraction, moving aside but sticking close enough to Jimin that he can feel his breath on the back of his hand. Jimin grasps the door handle and tugs it open just wide enough to stick his head out, keeping the wolf hidden from Daesuk.

“Daesuk, what do you want?”

Jimin sees Daesuk’s eyes sweep over what little of his cabin he can see. The hair on the back of Jimin’s neck stands on end. “I saw blood on the snow leading to your cabin. I wanted to make sure you were okay.”

“Just fine,” Jimin says with a smile so fake, his cheeks hurt from it.

“There were footprints, too,” Daesuk presses. “Wolf. There a wolf around here?”

Jimin feels the cold press of a wet nose against the inside of his elbow, warm fur brushing against his side, a thick tail winding around his leg. He shakes his head. “No wolves around here. Haven’t seen one in ages, actually.”

“Just let me—" Daesuk tries to shoulder his way through, but Jimin plants a foot behind the door so he can’t get in (and the wolf, agitated again, can’t get out).

“As I said before, Daesuk, everything here is just fine. Thanks for checking in.”

He kicks Daesuk’s foot aside and closes the door in his face, cutting off his last words, and sets the deadbolt.

Daesuk hangs around a little longer, shuffling around outside and muttering under his breath. Jimin can feel the tension still thrumming through the wolf and keeps a hand on him the whole time to keep him in check. When Daesuk finally leaves, Jimin turns to collapse against the door with a sigh, pressing his back against the hard wood. The wolf relaxes too, slumping to the floor to blanket Jimin’s feet.

As he begins to calm down, Jimin takes stock of the situation. How weird, that Daesuk had showed up talking about a wolf only hours after Jimin had brought one home, especially considering that he’d lied. Jimin had dragged the wolf home, so there wouldn’t have been any prints for Daesuk to follow. Even weirder was the wolf’s reaction to Daesuk. He’d responded to his presence so quickly and vehemently. Jimin had never seen a wolf act like that, before. Territorialism is one thing, but this is Jimin’s home, not the wolf’s. Perhaps the wolf had come to feel protective of him in their short time together, but Jimin doubts that’s it. It had seemed more personal than that, as if the wolf had a vendetta against Daesuk.

Jimin looks to the pile of scrap metal that the bear trap had become, still stained with the wolf’s blood. A sick feeling enters the pit of his stomach.

He looks down at the wolf resting at his feet. The wolf lifts his head to return his gaze, eyes dark with an emotion Jimin can’t read. “Was Daesuk the one to—?” Jimin can’t even finish his sentence, balking at the very thought.

The wolf lowers his ears and growls. Jimin feels bile rise in his throat.

“I’m sorry,” Jimin whispers. He sinks to the floor, the wolf moving to accommodate him and winding up sprawled over Jimin’s lap. He’s heavy and too-warm and his claws scrape against Jimin’s leg and it’d be so easy, so easy for the wolf to tear him apart at this close range, but Jimin knows now that he’s safe. The wolf wouldn’t, has had so many opportunities to but hasn’t, and despite himself and everything his mother had taught him, Jimin has come to trust this wolf and care about him. It hurts to think that someone Jimin knows, has known most his life, could have hurt this beautiful creature, had perhaps come back with the intent to finish the job. Daesuk had always been a bit stupid, a little bumbling, but he’d never seemed cruel.

What might have happened if Daesuk had been the one to find the wolf first? Jimin doesn’t want to, but he can’t help but imagine it. A bullet to the wolf’s head, a knife slicing through fur and muscle and blood. A shiny, silky black pelt for Daesuk’s bed.

Tears sting at the corners of Jimin’s eyes. He brings his hands to the wolf’s fur, running his fingers over the silky smoothness of it. Whether it had been the God his mother had been so fond of, or some other force which had led him to the bower, Jimin is thankful regardless. “I’m so sorry,” he says again.

The wolf whines and lifts his head to lick the trail of tears off Jimin’s cheek. His tongue is wet and tickles against Jimin’s skin, making him laugh. The wolf seems satisfied with that and lays back down, nuzzling his head into Jimin’s abdomen.

Jimin continues to pet the wolf as he sits there, thinking about all the ways his life had changed in such a short amount of time, and wonders what’s going to happen next. If Daesuk is anything, it’s stubborn—he’ll be back. Jimin hopes by that time the wolf is fully healed because Jimin isn’t sure he can keep them apart a second time.

He settles more of his weight against the door, getting comfortable as the wolf begins to nod off, the emotions of the day apparently taxing even for a wolf, and tries not to think about how much the thought of the wolf leaving hurts.

Chapter Text

Jimin wakes from a deep slumber fully alert, his hair standing on end and his heart racing faster than a wild horse’s galloping at full speed.

Everything in his body is screaming at him: something is wrong.

He sits up in bed, hand grappling in the dark for the nearest weapon. His fingers close around the brass candlestick on his bedside table. He clutches it tightly as he strains his senses to find out what had awakened him so violently.

He can’t hear anything. Can’t see anything. Everything is still and silent—eerie, almost, like he’s the only one that exists in the world.

Jimin looks to the rug at the foot of his bed, where the wolf had fallen asleep last night, but he’s not there. His heart sinks. He’s not surprised, just disappointed. After Jimin learned what had happened to the wolf on behalf of Daesuk, they’d become closer. At least, they’d reached an understanding and had learned how to trust each other more. But the wolf is a wild animal, not Jimin’s friend, and he’d expected that things between them would end sooner, rather than later.

He’d only hoped he’d be able to say a proper goodbye before the wolf left.

Jimin relaxes a fraction, attributing his unease to the wolf’s absence from his home. He sets the candlestick aside and lays back down, nuzzling his head into his pillow to wipe away the wetness on his cheeks.

It’s better this way, he reasons. The wolf’s place in the world is not as his pet. Besides, now Jimin doesn’t have to worry about Daesuk finding out his little secret.

The wolf is safe, and that’s all that matters. Jimin can learn to be happy with that.

Jimin is nearly asleep again, floating comfortably in that pocket of space between wakefulness and deep slumber, where everything feels warm and safe, when from outside in the main room, he hears a noise like footsteps dragging over the flagstones.

Footsteps and a stifled exhale like whatever or whoever is out there doesn’t want to make too much noise, doesn’t want to be heard. Footsteps and the creak of a cabinet slowly being opened. Footsteps and the sound of splashing water.

Jimin lies in bed, frozen, his heart in his throat and his stomach an empty void, more frightened than he’s ever been in his life. He can’t take his eyes off the bedroom door, expecting it to fly open any second and for whoever is in his house (Jimin is sure now it must be a person, as no animal could make those types of noises) to come murder him in his bed.

Everything stops. No one comes barreling through his door, knife in hand. All is still and silent once again. Jimin starts to feel quite silly; his mind must have been playing tricks on him. There’s only him in his home, the wolf gone to his own den and the rest of the world fast asleep. He’s alone, he’s safe—

Something falls and shatters against the floor. A cut-off curse. The blood in Jimin’s veins freezes.

Who could be out there? Who could’ve broken into his home? Who would’ve wanted to? Normally, the townsfolk avoid him at all cost.

Daesuk. He’d come back, come snooping around for evidence of the wolf. Suddenly, Jimin is filled with a blinding rage. How dare he?

“Daesuk, you bastard,” he growls and grabs the candlestick once more.

His fight-or-flight instincts are at odds with each other, one side telling him to rush into the room screaming like a banshee, the candlestick hoisted high like a sword in hopes that the shock would scare Daesuk away. On the other hand, logic tells him there’s no guarantee Daesuk would be affected enough to just leave. Besides, what if Daesuk had brought his own weapon? Brass has nothing on cold lead and gunpowder.

Jimin creeps to his bedroom door and peers around the wood, squinting into the dark.

Something moves in the kitchen, a shadow within a shadow, Daesuk’s bulky form hunched over a glittering pile of pottery on the flagstones.

This would be the perfect time to attack. Daesuk is distracted; Jimin could quickly deliver a blow hard enough to knock him out and Daesuk wouldn’t even know what hit him.

Jimin steps into the room. His shoulder bumps the door, the old, rusty hinges letting out a loud shriek of protest. Jimin freezes mid-step as Daesuk whips around to face him, eyes glinting in the dark, muscles shifting and coiling as he stalks closer and Jimin prepares to defend himself, raising the candlestick high and—

The moonlight streaming in through the window catches on black fur. A low growl fills the air, shaking Jimin down to his core. From the shadows, the wolf materializes, head held high as he stares Jimin down.

Jimin lowers his weapon, hardly able to believe his eyes. “W-wolf?”

The look the wolf gives him, as if to tell Jimin he’s being stupid, would be hilarious in any other situation if Jimin still wasn’t close to a heart attack.

“But…how?” Jimin shakes his head to dispel the cloudiness in his mind. “I thought you had left. I thought Daesuk was out here. I heard—”

The wolf snuffles and shakes his head. He pads closer to Jimin and sits at his feet. Jimin lowers a hand to pet him distractedly, feeling both relieved and confused.

He could swear he had heard footsteps. Not the soft ones of the wolf’s, but the heavy tread of a human. A human male. And who had cursed? There was no way the wolf, no matter how human he sometimes acted, could’ve made that sound.

Jimin looks down into the wolf’s eyes. The wolf stares back at him almost challengingly. Jimin feels a chill run down his spine. Could it be? He had heard tales of shapeshifters, people who could take on the form of an animal at will, changing between human and beast as easily as Jimin sheds his clothes. But those were just stories, right? Things parents told their children to delight or frighten.

The wolf presses his cold, wet nose against Jimin’s wrist and licks his trembling fingers. Jimin fists his hand in black fur and takes a steadying breath.

Only stories.

-----

In the following days, Jimin watches the wolf recover more of himself and feels the pain of the impending loss of what has become a great friendship like a knife to the heart. No matter how often he tells himself the wolf must move on, that they both must move on, he can’t bring himself to feel anything but sorrow.

The wolf walks taller, moves quicker, and stops favoring his injured leg. At last, the day comes where it’s no longer necessary for Jimin to clean or dress his wounds and the wolf becomes somehow greater, his eyes brighter, his fur darker as he sheds the death pall that had nearly consumed him. It’s both terrifying and beautiful to watch, and Jimin counts himself as one of the luckiest men in the world to bear witness to such a miracle.

But as the wolf thrives, he also becomes more restless, more agitated, and at times, aggressive. Jimin has a series of long cuts covering the spans of his ribcage where the wolf got him with his claws in one such moment, Jimin coming upon the wolf when he’d been distracted with watching something outside the window.

Jimin had cried out loudly, the pain nearly blinding. Blood had spilled freely, staining his shirt a dark red in mere moments. The wolf had been distraught, his low whine and displeased growl a constant apology in Jimin’s ears as the wolf hovered close, watching as Jimin doctored himself, first cleaning out the cuts then covering them in a thick paste. He’d left them unbound, so the wounds could breathe freely to avoid infection.

That night, the wolf had climbed into Jimin’s bed without so much as a by-your-leave and slept pressed against him, his muzzle resting gently on Jimin’s stomach just shy of where it hurt most.

Jimin wanted to be mad, to be frightened, to feel betrayed, but he couldn’t bring himself to be. It wasn’t the wolf’s fault—he was just acting as nature commanded him to. Jimin, on the other hand, had known what could happen to him if he let a wild animal stay in his house, and continued to let him anyway.

He’s being selfish, a fact which is becoming more apparent to him as the days continue to march on. During the day, the wolf is listless and bored; at night, he prowls the perimeter of Jimin’s home, pacing the floor like a caged animal. Jimin supposes that’s exactly what the wolf has become. He has kept the wolf prisoner in his home because of his own loneliness. It’s been quiet since his mother’s death, and it was nice to have someone with him again.

It can’t continue. The wolf needs to go, to be free, and most importantly, safe from the ever-present threat of Daesuk’s return. Jimin is surprised he hasn’t come back yet but not stupid enough to think they’d seen the last of him. He can feel something brewing in the air like an impending storm; he needs to get the wolf away before it hits.

Nearly a fortnight after Jimin had first saved the wolf, the morning dawns bright and warm, the sun turning the snow into a blanket of gems. It’s the first truly nice day they’d had in weeks.

Jimin knows it’s time to say goodbye.

He gets out of bed as quietly as he can, scooting out from beneath the wolf slowly so as not to waken him. He makes breakfast as he usually does: eggs and coffee for himself and chicken for the wolf. The scent of it draws the wolf out of the bedroom, his eyes still heavy with sleep as he bends low to the ground in a stretch that looks almost feline. Jimin wants to laugh but his heart feels too heavy for humor. He merely beckons the wolf over, placing his plate of chicken on the floor for him.

The wolf lopes over to join him but ignores his food in favor of looking up at Jimin questioningly. Jimin tries to give him a reassuring smile but can tell it doesn’t quite reach his eyes when the wolf seems to deflate, his ears and tail drooping.

They eat in silence, Jimin sitting at the table with the wolf at his feet, crunching bones between his teeth. When they’re finished, they move as one to Jimin’s tattered couch. Jimin sits with his back against one armrest and the wolf clambers up to blanket him from chest to toes with his warm bulk, his head resting on Jimin’s chest and his eyes, more luminous than any full moon Jimin has ever seen, piercing him to his very soul.

Jimin buries his hands in thick fur one last time and holds on tightly. “Don’t look at me like that,” he scolds, trying his hardest not to cry. “We both know you can’t stay here forever. You belong out there.”

The wolf sighs and shifts his gaze away from Jimin’s to look out the window. A look of pain or longing crosses his features, and Jimin knows he’s doing the right thing, no matter how much it hurts them.

They lie like that for a long time, the wolf’s breath hot on Jimin’s cheek, until the sun dips beneath a bank of clouds and the air grows colder. It’ll be nighttime soon. He better get it over with now, before he loses his nerve completely. His body feeling as heavy as a block of lead, every fiber in him protesting it, Jimin pushes the wolf off him and walks him over to the door. With shaking hands, he lifts the deadbolt, pushing the old wood aside.

The wolf stares into the encroaching darkness. Jimin tries to read the emotions behind his gaze but for the first time, he doesn’t know what the wolf is feeling. They stand there for what feels like hours, snow swirling around Jimin’s ankles and a deep chill settling in his bones, but the wolf doesn’t move. Jimin feels a foolish hope welling inside of him that the wolf is going to decide to stay, but those hopes are dashed when the wolf moves at last, lifting one paw and then the other, slowly crossing the threshold and picking his way carefully through the tall snow.

He makes it to the line of trees before turning to look at Jimin. They stare at each other for a long time, the tears freezing on Jimin’s cheeks.

The sky darkens further, and the moon rises, its cold, silver light silhouetting the wolf against the snow. He lifts his muzzle high in the air and closes his eyes, his howl echoing through the forest and Jimin’s heart before he’s off, bounding through the trees and out of Jimin’s life.

Chapter Text

The air feels brittle in Jimin’s lungs as he trudges through the snow, his breath crystallizing in the air on every exhale, the moisture sticking to his lips and cheeks making them feel like blocks of ice.

It’s been a ridiculous winter, he thinks as he struggles to find the path leading to the village, the hard-packed earth nearly vanished beneath another foot of fresh snow. He should have waited for the men to come out with their shovels to clear the way, but the wolf’s stay had depleted his larder significantly and there were things he desperately needed like eggs, coffee, and oil for his lamps. A bolt of cloth to repair his tattered cloak. Things he couldn’t grow or harvest or make himself.

Jimin pats the purse tied at his side, lamenting its meager size. He hopes he will have enough to cover his expenses. It’s been such a hard winter with the roads being nearly impassable, and not many ailing or injured persons have come to his door as of late, seeking his potions and medical knowledge. He hopes things will get better soon, that winter will loosen its clutches on the world, or he’s not sure how he will survive.

Distracted, he doesn’t notice the patch of ice in front of him. He steps down on it hard and his foot slides out from beneath him. He nearly falls backward, overcorrects and tips forward instead, his knees slamming against the icy ground. He catches himself on his hands before he falls on his face, plunging his arms to the elbow in the cold snow.

He lets out a little scream of frustration. Lord, how he hates winter. He pushes himself to his feet and shakes the snow off his freezing hands, blowing on them futilely to bring some life back into them.

And a pair of gloves, he adds to his ever-growing list of things he needs to buy for himself. He picks up his basket from where he’d flung it during his flailing and continues down the path, clutching the frayed ends of his cloak tightly around him, and can’t deny his relief when he sees the thatched roofs of the village rising over the crest of the hill, smoke from dozens of chimneys beckoning him forward.

Jimin steps up to the north gate along the village’s defensive wall and smiles at the guard to his left; the guard gives him a short nod in return and waves him through. As he does whenever he visits the village, Jimin looks up at the vaulted ceiling of the tunnel. and tries not to imagine the combined weight of all those ancient stones falling on top of him.

He breathes easier as he comes out on the other side, inhaling the smell of freshly-baked bread and smoked meat and the sulfuric fumes from the blacksmith’s forge. He turns that way and enters the shop, hailing down the master. The man comes over looking like a demon from Hell, his skin blackened by coal until the only thing that remains visible are his eyes. He wipes his hands off on a dirty rag and asks Jimin in a gruff voice how he can help him.

Jimin asks for a dozen nails and some cut lumber to finally repair the hole in his door the wolf had made, slipping his purchases into the basket hanging from the crook of his elbow. He hands the man his coin, avoiding touching him directly, and walks back into the cold, wiping the soot and sweat from his brow with the backs of his chilled fingers.

Next stop: the tanner’s. The pair of leather gloves Jimin chooses are not of the finest quality, but they are soft and warm, and he slips his hands into them with a sigh of relief, feeling life entering his flesh again.

The rest of his afternoon is far more pleasant without the distraction of the cold biting at his hands, and he walks down the cobbled streets with a smile on his face, enjoying being amongst people again, hearing the adults’ conversations and watching the children frolic between the shops.

It gets so lonely out in the woods that even though not many of the villagers stop to talk to him, and most of the children run from him when he approaches, he’s content enough with just being an observer.

He visits the apothecary to replenish the supplies he’d used to heal the wolf. While he’s there, the apothecary commissions him for a batch of his special tonic to help ease the symptoms of gout, and Jimin feels some of the stress leave him as he thinks of the coin coming his way. At least he won’t starve this winter. He leaves the apothecary with the promise of bringing the tonic within the week.

Jimin continues meandering his way down the thoroughfare, stopping next at the draper’s. Together, they find a wool nearly the same color as his cloak. At the grocer’s, he purchases a dozen eggs, coffee, and yeast to bake his bread; from the butcher, a rasher of bacon and salted pork that smells so good, he salivates at the thought of supper. For the oil he needs, he goes to the general good’s store, where he also picks up another earthenware mug to replace the one that had been broken.

His final stop is the jeweler’s, which he’s glad for because his basket is almost too heavy to carry. He doesn’t need anything from here, but he can’t leave the village without saying hello to the one person he can call a friend.

He pushes through the door. The bell above it tinkles merrily, and from the back room, he hears a cheerful voice call out, “Be with you in a moment!”

Jimin smiles and sits in one of the chairs near the front window. He sets down his basket of goods with a groan and massages the inside of his elbow where the handle had cut into his skin. While he waits, he peruses the goods sitting in the window, the sunlight shining in and making the jewels sparkle. His attention is caught and held by a particularly beautiful gold pocket-watch inlaid with small rubies. Its cost could probably feed him for years.

Finally, Taehyung walks into the room with a polite smile on his face which grows into his signature boxy grin when he spots Jimin.

“Park Jimin!” He stomps over, bending to pull Jimin into a hug. “Feels like it’s been a fortnight since last I saw you!”

“Three weeks,” Jimin corrects with a laugh. “I’ve been busy.” Taehyung pouts; Jimin hastens to make him feel better, the lie coming to him easily. “Actually, I was unwell. Fever, chills, a cough. Thought it’d be best if I stayed out of town.”

A shadow clouds Taehyung’s expression. “It’s been a rough winter for all of us. My mother just recently broke a high fever herself. She’s still not feeling the best, though.”

Jimin feels a pang of guilt. While he’d been playing doctor with a wolf, there were other people who had needed his help, people he cared about very much. If she had died and he’d been able to save her, he would never have been able to forgive himself. “Is there anything I can do for her?”

Taehyung smiles again, and the shadow passes, his eyes bright once more. “There is another doctor here in town, you know,” he teases.

“Still,” Jimin says, not hiding his distaste regarding said doctor. “Next time send for me directly. In the meantime, tell your mother to drink an infusion of honey, ginger, and yarrow twice a day. That should help with her cough and get rid of any lingering traces of fever.”

“Thank you.” Taehyung’s gratitude shines through his eyes and in his touch as he pulls Jimin into another hug. Jimin revels in it, feeling a warmth touch his heart he hasn’t felt since his mother passed.

The moment passes too soon, in his opinion, Taehyung pulling out of his reach. Jimin nearly pulls him toward himself again, just to hold him a moment longer, but the expression on Taehyung’s face stops him. He looks angry, his eyes fixed on something outside the window, his jaw set tight, his eyes dark.

Jimin follows his line of sight; Daesuk is standing across the street, watching them through the frosted window. His heart plummets into his stomach.

“I have to go,” Jimin says through numb lips. He stands and picks up his basket. “Can I escape through the back?”

Taehyung ushers Jimin away, bringing him into the back of the store, where he does all his work, and through another door which leads to his private apartment.

“What’s he skulking around here for, anyway?” Taehyung mutters. “Thought you told him to get lost.”

“Multiple times.” Jimin shrugs miserably. “Guess his mother never taught him the meaning of the word 'no.'”

Taehyung looks at him over his shoulder, gaze sympathetic even as his lips twist into a sneer. “He doesn’t deserve you, and if I had it my way, he’d be—”

Jimin never gets to hear what Daesuk would be, as the words are swallowed by Taehyung’s grunt of surprise as he runs into what appears at first to be a tall shadow but quickly materializes into the form of a young, handsome man with dark hair and even darker eyes.

“Sorry, sorry,” the man says in a quiet voice as he sets Taehyung upright again. “Was in a hurry."

Taehyung huffs out a breath of disbelief. “Are you leaving again?”

The man tugs at his hair sheepishly. “Yeah, I—” His gaze slides from Taehyung over to Jimin and he seems to falter, wide eyes growing even bigger as he stares at Jimin. “I, uh, have somewhere I need to be.”

“Of course, you do,” Taehyung mutters. He turns to Jimin. “Jimin, meet my idiot cousin, Jeongguk.”

Jeongguk is…something. Tall, broad, and with help from the sconce, Jimin notices his eyes actually have some flecks of amber in them. He tries not to stare as he steps closer to Jeongguk and offers him a hand. “You never told me you had a cousin. Nice to meet you.”

Jeongguk takes his hand slowly, long fingers nearly engulfing Jimin’s. His eyes are intense as he looks down at Jimin. “My pleasure. Jimin.”

Jimin doesn’t understand why, but the sound of his name coming from Jeongguk’s mouth, spoken in a low timbre, sends a small shiver down his spine.

Taehyung clasps Jeongguk’s shoulder and gives him a little shake. “He’s not from around here.” His smile turns wicked. “And he’s never done anything worth mentioning him until now.”

Jeongguk shoves Taehyung and the moment is broken, his gaze falling from Jimin’s, their hands disconnecting. Jimin nearly misses the attention but is thankful nonetheless for the respite. Something about Jeongguk has him on edge, has the hairs on the back of his neck standing to attention, has his heart beating triple-time.

“Are you just passing through or…?” Jimin tries to keep his voice light and uninterested, like he doesn’t care about Jeongguk’s answer either way, but inwardly, he’s desperately wishing for one specific answer.

“Here to stay, actually,” Jeongguk says, turning back to Jimin, immersing him in the intensity of his gaze once again.

"Surprising, considering just a couple weeks ago, you said this village was 'boring,'" Taehyung mutters.

Jeongguk ignores him. "I'm hoping to get a job."

“I told you, you could work for me."

Jeongguk scoffs. “I don’t know anything about jewels, Tae. I need a different job.”

“You won’t have any job if you keep disappearing for long periods of time,” Taehyung says, jabbing a finger into Jeongguk’s chest.

“I told you, I got lost,” Jeongguk hisses, cheeks turning a dull pink.

“For almost two weeks?

Jeongguk’s cheeks burn brighter. “I couldn’t find my way through the storms!”

Taehyung coos and reaches out to pinch Jeongguk’s cheek. “Look how cute you get when you’re flustered.”

Jimin stands to the side, watching their argument with a smile on his face. Jeongguk really is adorable in that moment. The odd magnetism from before had fallen away, leaving behind nothing more than a young man Jimin can’t help but laugh at as he becomes increasingly more embarrassed.

He’s about to impart his two cents into the conversation, maybe tease Jeongguk a little himself, but a shadow beyond Taehyung’s back door catches his attention. His heart plummets into his stomach. Daesuk is still loitering, probably trying to figure out if Jimin has left yet. He needs to go now, before Daesuk figures out he hasn’t. He doesn’t want to drag Taehyung and Jeongguk into his problems, doesn’t want to get them involved in whatever Daesuk is up to.

“Thanks for everything, Taehyung,” Jimin says, interrupting the two cousins’ increasingly ridiculous squabbling, “but I really ought to go. I’d like to be home before it gets dark.” He turns to Jeongguk and holds his hand out for one last shake. “Until we meet again.”

Jeongguk’s soft smile reawakens the butterflies in Jimin’s stomach. His palm is hot against Jimin’s when he slides their hands together, squeezing gently. “Have a good night, Jimin.”

Jimin leaves while he can still bring himself to. He pushes the door open and glances into the alley, thankfully not seeing Daesuk anywhere. He hurries, sticking to the side streets in case he’s lurking around the more common areas.

He’s nearly made it to the edge of town, the west gate in sight, but just as he’s about to step onto the path, he’s grabbed roughly from behind and pulled into a dark corner away from the prying eyes of the guard stationed at the gate.

“Thought you could get away without saying hello?”

Jimin struggles to free himself but Daesuk has a firm grasp on him, his thick fingers digging into the muscle of Jimin’s biceps. He glares up at Daesuk, mustering all the distaste for the man as he can. “Let me go.”

“I don’t appreciate being made a fool of,” Daesuk seethes, face only centimeters from Jimin’s, spittle hitting his cheeks.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Jimin says, and it’s nothing short of the truth. What has he done lately that would make Daesuk this angry, this aggressive?

“You found that wolf, you took him home, and you healed him. I know you did.” Daesuk leans in even closer, his beard scratching Jimin’s face as he presses his lips nearly to Jimin’s ear. “You shouldn’t have done that.”

Using every ounce of his strength, Jimin presses his hands against Daesuk’s chest and pushes. It’s enough to surprise Daesuk into letting him go, a breath of surprise and pain squeezed from his lungs. Jimin slips away from him and makes a break for the gate, his basket of goods slapping against his side. He hopes nothing has fallen out but doesn’t dare turn around to look. All he cares about right now is getting away from Daesuk.

“I’ll find that wolf,” Daesuk calls after him. “You won’t be able to save him a second time!”

His laughter follows Jimin, Daesuk’s harshness and glee echoing in his ears, terrifying and confusing him. Daesuk had sounded like a man half-crazed, and Jimin wonders what his obsession with the wolf is and why he’s so set on harming him.

Jimin hopes, for the wolf’s sake, he’s a long, long way gone by now, and knows better than to let himself be caught again.

He makes his way through the woods quickly, not trusting the guard to have stopped Daesuk from following him. Approaching his home from the west and circling back around has taken him far from the beaten path, and beneath the thick canopy of trees and the waning moonlight, there’s nothing to stop Daesuk from doing whatever he wants.

Jimin picks up his pace, his lungs burning with the exertion; his arms feel half-dead as he lugs his basket along. He’s half a mind to drop the damn thing but what a waste that would be after all he’s gone through to obtain the items within it.

A rustling in the underbrush stops him in his tracks, everything inside of him tensing in fear. He peers into the darkness fruitlessly, trying to see from which direction the sound had come. He lets out a little scream at the sound of twigs snapping and turns to his left, raising his basket to protect himself, though he knows there’s little he can do.

It’s not Daesuk that steps out from the line of trees; it’s the wolf, his bright, amber eyes fixed on Jimin as he approaches slowly. Jimin cries out in both relief and sadness—so, the wolf had stayed—and collapses to his knees in the snow, his basket rolling away from him. He opens his arms and the wolf steps into the circle of them with a quiet growl. He nuzzles into the crook of Jimin’s neck and presses his nose against Jimin’s skin. It makes Jimin shiver, but for a reason other than the cold. 

“You stupid, stupid thing,” Jimin says even as he clings to him, even as he wets the wolf’s fur with his tears. “You shouldn’t be here.”

The wolf licks Jimin’s tears off his cheeks and steps back enough so Jimin can look at his face properly. The wolf’s eyes take him in completely, searching every inch of him like the wolf is worried he’s been hurt. 

Jimin wonders if the wolf, too, had heard Daesuk’s curse, or if he could smell the man’s touch on him. He doesn’t know much about wolf behavior, but he knows enough to recognize when one is feeling protective. He’s both happy and not that the wolf had stuck close to him and was there to help him when he needed it, just as Jimin had helped him.

The wolf nuzzles him one last time before he steps away and begins collecting Jimin’s scattered items, placing them gently into the basket. When he’s finished, he picks the whole thing up in his mouth by the handle and gives Jimin a pointed look before turning in the direction of his cabin.

Jimin stands on shaky legs and begins following him. “Alright,” he says quietly. “Let’s go home.”

Chapter Text

Jimin is finishing the final stitches in his mended cloak when there’s a knock at his door. Startled, he stabs himself in the thumb with the needle, and a few drops of blood well up and fall onto the cloak.

“At least it’s red,” he says with a sigh and sets the cloak aside. He looks at his thumb. It’s only a small puncture wound; the blood had already stopped. He sticks his thumb in his mouth as he stands, moving towards the door. “Who is it?” he calls, the words coming out garbled around his thumb.

“It’s me,” Jeongguk’s voice answers.

Jimin’s heart skips a beat. With more eagerness than the situation calls for, he pulls the door open and greets Jeongguk with a warm smile. Jeongguk answers him with a smile of his own, the edges of his teeth peeking out through the gap in his lips and his eyes crinkling into half-moons.

“Hello,” Jimin says as he steps aside to allow Jeongguk in. He notes with some confusion that Jeongguk is pulling a sled piled high with wood and various tools behind him. Ignoring it for now, he takes the cloak from Jeongguk’s shoulders and hangs it on a hook near the door.

“Hi,” Jeongguk says breathlessly, his cheeks red with cold, but there’s a warmth in his gaze as he looks Jimin up and down.

“To what do I owe this visit?” Jimin hasn’t seen Jeongguk since he last visited the village to drop off the tonic for the apothecary, and even then, they hadn’t been able to talk for long as Jimin had been in a hurry, loath to spend too long in the village and give Daesuk the chance to sniff him out again. He hadn’t thought he’d left any sort of lasting impression on Jeongguk, so he’s a bit surprised to see him here. “I hope your walk wasn’t too treacherous.”

Jeongguk waves his concern away. “You mentioned last time we spoke that your door had been broken. I’m here to fix it.”

Jimin looks to the slipshod repairs he had done himself and feels his cheeks burning hot. “It’s already fixed,” he argues, trying to save face. He really had tried his best, but he’s simply not good with tools. At least the snow had stopped creeping in and leaving puddles all over, which is really all he cared about. Still, he wasn’t going to put up too much of a fight—Jeongguk was here, in Jimin's home, his gaze filled with fondness and amusement. Jimin could put up with a little embarrassment if it meant Jeongguk would keep looking at him like that.

“Fine, have at it,” he concedes, gesturing toward the door. “At least let me get you something to drink while you work.”

Jeongguk’s smile grows wider; Jimin notes it makes him look like a rabbit and glances away before he can do something really humiliating like coo or call him adorable. His infatuation has really gotten out of hand. “I’ll take some coffee, if you have any.”

“Always,” Jimin says and moves to get started on it while Jeongguk readies his tools.

They work in silence for a bit, the only sounds that fill the room being the coffee boiling in the pan and the scratch of Jeongguk’s pencil as he measures out the length and width of the area that needs fixing. It’s not awkward like Jimin had expected, but rather nice. He feels comfortable in Jeongguk’s presence, like he doesn’t have to try too hard, like they’ve been friends for a long time.

When the coffee is finished, he pours two mugs and carries them over to Jeongguk, who takes his with a soft thanks. He blows over the top of the mug—Jimin tries not to think about how kissable his lips look pursed like that—and takes a small sip, smacking his lips with relish. “It’s good.”

Jimin beams and sits next to him, taking a sip of his own coffee.

“So, how did your door get broken?” Jeongguk asks. He stands and sets his empty cup on the counter.

Jimin coughs into his coffee. “An, um. An animal tried to break in.” He feels his cheeks heating up and hides his face in his coffee cup again. It’s not unheard of. Wild animals get just as desperate in difficult times as humans do, and this winter had been especially hard. Still, he’s uncomfortable with lying so much, first to his best friend and now to someone he would like to get closer to. It’s for the best, though, he reasons. If he told the truth, there’s no telling how people would react.

Jeongguk turns to him, and the look on his face is highly amused. “What kind of animal?”

“A bear, I think.”

“Haven’t seen many bears around here. Too many people.”

Jimin laughs nervously. “Well, you know. Difficult times and all.” He’s not cut out for this. He’s never been a good liar, and Jeongguk’s inquiries are only making it harder for him. He doesn’t know how long he can keep the charade going before he starts to buckle under the pressure.

“Yes,” Jeongguk murmurs, an odd expression Jimin can’t read flashing in his eyes before it’s gone. Thankfully, he seems satisfied with that answer and content to focus on fixing the door. He sets up two trestles and lays a slab of oak across them. He pencils out what he needs then takes out a saw to begin cutting. Jimin watches the methodic way Jeongguk pulls the saw back and pushes it forward, the bulge of muscle in his upper-and-forearm, the light sheen of sweat that breaks out across his forehead.

He looks away, scolding himself for staring. He doesn’t want to make Jeongguk uncomfortable. There are dishes in the sink that need to be washed, so Jimin works on those and ignores Jeongguk’s labored breaths behind him. Eventually, the hot water and simple task of scrubbing and drying pottery soothes his restlessness, and he’s able to forget about his strange attraction to Jeongguk. Almost forgets about him completely, his thoughts turning over to other matters.

“I saw you talking to Daesuk the other day,” Jeongguk’s voice rings out.

Jimin, startled more by the comment than Jeongguk speaking, drops a plate he’d been about to shelve. It shatters against the flagstones.

Jeongguk rushes over with a concerned expression on his face. “I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to startle you.” He takes Jimin’s hand and helps him step over the pile of shards. “You’re not hurt, are you?”

“No.” Jimin grabs for the broom but Jeongguk beats him to it, and starts to sweep up the mess. “You don’t have to do that,” Jimin protests. Jeongguk is already fixing his door, what a terrible host Jimin would be if he let his guest clean up, too. He tries to get the broom away from Jeongguk but Jeongguk is stronger and faster than him, easily keeping him at bay.

“I do,” Jeongguk argues, a laugh bubbling in his throat. “I’m the one who caused you to make this mess.”

Jimin is reminded of what Jeongguk had said that had alarmed him. He forgets about the broom. “You said you saw me talking to Daesuk?”

A blush dusts Jeongguk’s cheeks a light pink, and he looks ashamed. “I hadn’t meant to spy on you. I was heading to the blacksmith’s when I heard angry voices. I went to check it out.” A dark look clouds Jeongguk’s expression. “He didn’t hurt you, did he?”

Jimin shakes his head.

The dark cloud passes, and Jeongguk is smiling once again. “I’m glad. What was he so angry about, anyway?”

He could tell Jeongguk the truth. He doesn’t know Jeongguk that well, yet, but in the time they’ve spent together, Jimin has learned that Jeongguk is bit of an oddball himself, a bit of an outcast, somebody who doesn’t like to stick to the status quo. He would probably think Jimin’s discovery of the wolf and how he’d nursed him back to health, and consequently, the odd friendship that had come from it, was an incredible adventure.

Of course, there’s always the chance that Jimin is wrong, and Jeongguk would understand his fondness for the wolf no more than anybody else. It’s this slight doubt that keeps Jimin’s conscience locked up tight.

Still, he must tell Jeongguk something. He can’t deny what Jeongguk had seen—he and Daesuk had been angry with each other. It would be silly to try to spin the story any other way.

Jimin sighs. If his mother were still alive, she would wash his mouth out with lye for how dishonest he’s been lately. So, he settles for a half-truth. “There was a time when Daesuk and I were lovers. I broke it off with him some time ago, and he’s never forgiven me for it.”

The change is almost immediate. “You and Daesuk?” Jeongguk’s voice is low and dark, tendrils of some emotion Jimin can’t quite place curling at the edges. It makes him seem dangerous; the hard glint in his eyes does, too. Jimin had seen that look before, in the eyes of his wolf when he was hurt and afraid or when Jimin was in peril. It’s the cold gaze of a predator who feels as though it’s been backed into a corner and must fight for its life.

Jimin begins to feel nervous. All the hair on the back of his neck stands to attention. He had never considered Jeongguk as anything but gentle, but suddenly he understands Jeongguk could hurt if pushed enough. What he doesn’t know is if that intent is meant for him or for Daesuk.

“Not one of my better moments,” Jimin says with a shivery little laugh. “But I was young, and he—” Jimin stops. What was Daesuk to him, then? He honestly can’t remember anything special about him or the relationship they had together, a relationship that spanned the course of nearly three years. All Jimin can remember is a lot of yelling, a lot of distrust, and the sense that Daesuk was only with him because Jimin was just another trophy to add to his collection. “He was there,” he finishes lamely, and to his embarrassment, the hot sting of tears prick at the corners of his eyes. He quickly looks down at his hands (which, in his agitation, he had chafed together until they’re a blistering red), both to hide his shame and avoid the intensity of Jeongguk’s gaze.

Rough, warm hands cover his own. Jimin stares as Jeongguk’s fingers caress over his skin, soothing away some of the hurt. Jeongguk twines their fingers together, his knuckles knocking against Jimin’s in sweet pain. Jimin continues to stare, his heart rabbiting in his chest, as Jeongguk lifts his hands to his mouth. His lips are chapped, and they scrape along Jimin’s skin as he kisses the backs of his hands like a prince would greet a princess in an old novel.

Jimin feels by turns hot and cold, with gooseflesh crawling down his arms and a fire in his gut. He forgets his tears for a moment, returning his gaze to Jeongguk’s, and what he sees there takes what little breath he had left away like Jeongguk himself had reached inside his chest and squeezed all the oxygen from his lungs.

Jeongguk’s eyes still hold danger in them, but there’s also a tenderness that Jimin can feel almost as much as he can feel Jeongguk’s hands in his own. “I’m sorry.” His voice is gentle, soothing. Jimin feels the last of his fear slip away, but none of the tension. That is still very much present, pulsing beneath his skin in time with his heartbeat. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“It’s alright,” Jimin whispers through lips that have gone numb.

Jeongguk negates this with an agitated shake of his head. “I don’t like seeing my friends hurt.” He pulls Jimin closer, and now Jimin can smell him, can smell sulfur and fire and the deep woods. He feels a little dizzy, a little punch-drunk, a little like if Jeongguk wasn’t holding him up, he’d fall to the floor in a swoon. Jeongguk leans in and now his mouth is almost touching Jimin’s ear. “I don’t want to hurt you, Jimin,” he whispers, and his breath is like a caress of wind over the skin of Jimin’s neck. He shivers. “You deserve so much better.”

Jimin gulps. Nods. His hands spasm in Jeongguk’s hold. Despite the heady rush of lust still zinging through him, a little of his earlier fear had returned, for beneath Jeongguk’s words remains a coiling threat like a venomous snake hidden in the bushes, and suddenly, Jimin is worried for Daesuk.

-----

The cabin is warmer than it had ever been, with a hearty fire blazing merrily in the hearth and the chinks around the window casings filled with fresh mortar (also Jeongguk’s work), so the wind no longer howls through the cracks. Jimin sinks onto his couch, cradling a steaming mug of herbal tea in his hands, and thinks about reading for an hour or two before climbing into bed.

Jimin picks up his book, a compendium of past and current medical practices he had asked Taehyung to pick up for him during one of his trips to the city, and tries to concentrate, but the words swim before his eyes, whole sentences running together. To his annoyance, the only thing he’s able to focus on is Jeongguk. He can’t stop picturing the way Jeongguk had looked earlier, or how it had felt to be held by him. Now that he knows Jeongguk’s touch, the scent of his skin, the way his eyes dance with the flames, Jimin craves more.

He wants Jeongguk with a yearning that borders on desperate.

With a huff, Jimin snaps the book shut and tosses it aside, watching as it bounces off the cushion and falls to the floor with a flat thud that sounds almost judgmental. “Get ahold of yourself, Park,” he mumbles to himself. “You’re better than this.”

What was it about Jeongguk that had him so knotted up inside, anyway? He’s only known the man for a couple weeks, now—they’re practically strangers! Yet somehow, when Jimin looks at Jeongguk, he feels as if he’s known him longer, as if they shared something special.

It’s disconcerting, and Jimin is sure he’s only projecting onto Jeongguk half-realized wishes he isn’t ready to admit, but sometimes Jeongguk reminds him of his wolf, who, too, can be at times tender and others, wild.

Dangerous.

Again, the image of Jeongguk flashes in front of his eyes, only this time it’s not the memory of his touch Jimin focuses on, but how he had changed so quickly, so completely when Jimin revealed he and Daesuk had once been lovers. As much as he wants to believe Jeongguk could never harm another person, Jimin knows he hadn’t misread the steely glint in his eyes. It bespoke of an anger so potent, nothing short of murder could assuage it. The force of it had nearly bowled Jimin over. All that, and for what? Surely not for him, for what is he to Jeongguk?

Dare he hope that perhaps Jeongguk, too, wants something more than friendship for them?

A flash of light from the corner of his eyes catches Jimin’s attention. The flames from the fire refract off the handsome, blonde wood of the new door Jeongguk had installed. Jimin had protested, saying the old door was fine, that the agreed upon repairs were more than sufficient, but Jeongguk had insisted. The old door was too weak, he said, and the hinges were so rusty they would soon disintegrate. He said he didn’t like the thought of Jimin up here all alone, protected only by a door so flimsy, a bear could tear a hole through it.

Jimin had flushed and turned away from Jeongguk’s teasing smile, but secretly, he’d been pleased. It was one of the nicest things anyone had said to or done for him since his mother had died, and Jeongguk’s kindness had nearly brought tears to his eyes.

He looks at that door now, hours later, and imagines Jeongguk walking through it, dragging mud and snow in with him, as he had done earlier. Jimin can hear his soft laughter, can see the curve of his smile as he unpins his cloak and turns to hang it next to Jimin’s. He watches as Jeongguk’s phantom hand brushes the snowflakes from his hair, watches as he turns back to Jimin, watches as Jeongguk watches him for a moment before coming closer, dirty boots forgotten in his pursuit to drop a cold, gentle kiss on Jimin’s brow.

Oh, how fiercely Jimin wants that with an ache so sudden, it feels like he’s been stabbed in the gut. He can’t help but hope Jeongguk wants it, too, for why else would he have helped Jimin in this capacity? Why else would he have whispered those things in Jimin’s ear? Why else would he have been so upset by the mere thought of Jimin and Daesuk together?

Jimin stretches out on the couch, his gaze still fixed on the door, and lets his imagination run wild, picturing what a life with Jeongguk might be like. He’s so enmeshed in his fantasies that at first, he doesn’t hear the sounds coming from behind the door. A short, loud bark jolts him back into the real world. Grinning, Jimin rolls off the couch and rushes to open the door.

The wolf pushes past him with a snuffle that sounds annoyed. He stops in the center of the room and gives himself a quick shake, snow flying in every direction and sizzling on the fire-warm hearth. Once dry, he hops onto the couch and curls into a tight ball. He glances at the free space next to him then turns his gaze to Jimin’s with an expression that says: “Well, what are you waiting for?”

Jimin doesn’t need to be asked twice, hurrying over to join the wolf on the couch. If he can’t have Jeongguk here, well, at least he has his wolf to keep him company.

Chapter Text

A low rumble wakes Jimin from a dream in which he and his wolf were strolling through the snowy, moonlit forest. The dream had been a pleasant one and Jimin is loath to leave it. He tries to slip back beneath the waves of deep sleep, desperate to revisit that quiet, serene place, but the constant sound, whatever it is, cannot be ignored.

No, that’s not quite right. The rumbling is more than a sound, it’s a sensation.

Jimin opens his eyes and is momentarily disoriented. Though his internal clock tells him it must be nearing the break of dawn, his vision is completely dark. A sharp spike of panic ties his guts into knots—had he somehow gone blind in his sleep?

The darkness moves. Now, he can see pinpricks of pink-gold light slanting in through the clouded-glass panes of his bedroom window. The silhouette of his wolf comes into blurry focus, a long snout and one ear taking form.

He relaxes, feeling sheepish. How could he have forgotten? How could he have been so silly?

Jimin moves closer to the warm body pressed against his and nuzzles into the wolf’s thick fur. Here, the rumbling seems even more intense, louder and stronger than ever before, Jimin’s whole body quaking with it.

“What is it, boy?” Jimin asks sleepily, now awake enough to realize it’s the wolf making all the fuss.

The wolf grunts and butts his head against Jimin’s. A long, wet tongue swipes across Jimin’s jaw and cheek, and awareness slams into Jimin like he’d been hit; his wolf is agitated about something, the body Jimin is pressed against tense and coiled like a spring.

Jimin sits up and puts an arm around the wolf, hoping to calm him a bit. With the other hand, he wipes the sleep from his eyes, mouth opening wide in a yawn. Perhaps it’s because of the wolf’s presence but Jimin doesn’t feel afraid. If he were in true danger, or if, God forbid, Daesuk had come back, he thinks the wolf would have already attacked. Whatever the wolf is reacting to, he seems more cautious, perhaps even worried, than aggressive.

The wolf growls and presses his wet snout again Jimin’s shoulder, urging him forward. Moving slowly, his body still heavy with sleep, Jimin clambers off the bed and shuffles into the main room. Out here, he can hear the light, almost-hesitant knocks on his door, and a low voice calling to him from beyond it. He shivers in the cold air, the fire from last night now nothing but ashes in the grate, and hurries across the flagstones to pull the door open.

A young girl stands on his stoop. She’s a little slip of a thing, no more than five or six-years-old, with her cap askew on her head and her boots unlaced. She’s shaking in the frigid air, twin spots of red sitting high on her cheeks and a dribble of snot running down her chapped mouth.

Jimin pulls the girl inside and grabs his red cloak, wrapping it tightly around the girl. “Little one, what are you doing here?”

“It’s me ma,” she says in the same low, quivering voice she had used to call to him from the other side of the door. “She’s turrible sick.” Tears spring to her eyes. “Will ye come? I can pay.” She slides a pale hand out from the folds of Jimin’s cloak and turns her palm over, revealing a single copper coin. “Oh, please, will ye come?”

“Why didn’t you fetch the town physician?”

The little girl’s lips pull back in a sneer Jimin is surprised to see on so young a face. “Me ma says he’s worthless. He doesn’t care for us little folk.” The bitterness drains from her expression, leaving only worry behind. She raises her hand again, offering the coin to Jimin. “Please come.”

Jimin places his hand over the little girl's and closes her fingers around the coin. “Of course, I’ll go. But keep your money.”

A watery smile pulls the girl’s lips up. “Thank ye, mister.” She flings herself at Jimin and wraps her thin arms around his neck. “You’re so—” A small scream cuts off her words. The grip she has on Jimin becomes like a noose, and Jimin thinks he knows what she’s just seen before she says anything. “A-a wolf! Mister, there’s a—”

“Hush,” Jimin says. “It’s alright. He won’t hurt you.” The little girl continues to cling to him, nearly choking Jimin with the strength of her grip as she stares the wolf down. “Watch,” Jimin says, pulling back from her and gently extricating himself from her hold. Jimin turns to the wolf and holds his hand out. “C’mere, boy.”

The wolf comes to him without hesitation, snuffling against his palm for a moment before leaning into the caress, eyes closing in bliss.

The little girl’s eyes are wide with curiosity and delight. “Me ma says wolves are mean and vicious. She says they’ll gobble me up for dinner.”

Jimin laughs. “I think your ma is right to caution you against wolves. This wolf, however, is my special friend.”

The girl lets out a wistful sigh. “I wish I had a special friend.”

“You do,” Jimin says firmly. “I will be your friend. The wolf, too. But you have to promise me something.”

“Anything,” the girls says quickly, her eyes shining earnestly.

“You must never tell anyone about the wolf, okay? He will have to go away then and he won’t be able to be your friend anymore.”

“I promise,” the girls says solemnly. Hesitantly, she reaches out a hand to the wolf. He leans in closer and sniffs at the tips of her fingers then licks them. The little girl giggles and returns her gaze to Jimin’s. “Cross me heart.”

“Very good.” Jimin stands and grabs his spare cloak, wrapping it tightly around him. In one hand, he picks up the black, leather bag he keeps stocked with medicine and medical supplies for emergencies, and in his other, he grabs the little girl’s hand. “Now, let’s go see to your ma.”

Leaving the wolf behind, Jimin and the little girl (whose name, he learns during their stroll, is Hani), set out for the dwelling where she and her mother live alone. (Jimin also learns, in their time together, that Hani’s father is not in their life, though she would not say why.)

The trek through the snow is difficult, Hani’s legs not long or strong enough to push through the higher drifts. Jimin wonders how she was able to make it out to his cottage and marvels at the hidden strength in Hani’s small body and her determination to get her mother the care she needs.

When Hani stumbles again, Jimin takes pity upon the small child and swings her onto his shoulders. She squeals with delight and buries her hands into the meat of his neck to steady herself, the icy prick of her fingers shooting bolts down his spine.

This morning, there is no guard waiting at the north gate to let him through. His way is barred by a thick, iron portcullis refusing entrance to any traveler who might come this way, few though they may be. For a moment, Jimin is dismayed. Will he have to walk to one of the other gates? Any more time lost and who knows what might become of Hani’s mother, of Hani herself? He’s not sure Hani could handle being exposed to the cold much longer without risking severe damage to her skin, perhaps even hypothermia.

No, someone is nearby. Jimin can hear the crackle of their fire, can smell the burnt-meat stench of their breakfast. Merely a lazy guardsman, not an absent one. A young lad, most likely, not yet used to following orders.

Jimin calls out a halloo and smiles at the answering curse and clang of someone hastily donning armor. Just as he expected, the guard who comes to greet him is young, the first, wiry wisps of a beard just beginning to show themselves.

“Hello, Mister Park,” the lad says as he begins to turn the drum that will lift the portcullis. “I see you’ve brought Hani back to us.”

“I told you, me ma is ill. She needs help,” Hani says, defiance making her normally quiet tone louder, stronger. Jimin checks the urge to smile again, amused by and proud of the fire in Hani’s spirit. She will be a formidable woman, someday, if given the chance to grow.

“Nonetheless,” the guard says as he steps aside for Jimin to enter, “you heard the governor’s declaration as well as anyone else. No one is to leave the village at night.” To Jimin, he says, “She snuck by me just as a thief in the night would.”

Jimin doubts this, thinks perhaps Hani had only had to walk nonchalantly past the unobservant guard, but he holds his tongue. He’s more interested in why the governor had made such an announcement, finding it odd. No such law had ever been imposed, before.

“Why would the governor make such a decree?”

“Why, on account of the wolf, of course,” the guard says, his voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper. Jimin’s blood runs cold, and he can feel Hani go stiff against him. “The governor doesn’t want anyone getting hurt, see.”

“The governor must be mistaken,” Jimin says, trying to keep the tremor out of his voice. “I have seen no wolves.”

“But you’re not the only person who lives outside the boundary of the wall, are you?” The guard’s tone is no longer jovial, a hard edge entering it. Jimin wonders at the turn, feeling almost like he’s being accused of something.

Unfortunately, the guard is not wrong. With a sinking heart, Jimin recalls the few people, his neighbors, if they could be called that, who also live in the cold, lonely forest. They are rough, degenerate people, not suited for civilized life within the confines of the village. They live mostly off the land, moving from one place to another as the forces of nature dictate. It’s not hard to believe one of them could have seen the wolf tracks in the snow or heard its howl.

Bile rises in his throat. Perhaps they had even seen the wolf. Had seen him with the wolf. Had seen him take it home with him that first, fateful night, had seen him turn it out, hale and whole once again, had seen him allow it to return.

The guard is still eyeing him. Jimin is unable to read his thoughts, but he can’t help but feel the guard is searching for something in his own expression, something like guilt. He must tread carefully.

“How terrible,” Jimin says, not bothering to hide the fear in his voice this time as it aides his attempt to play along with the charade. “It probably came down from the mountains, looking for food. I hope it doesn’t hurt anyone.”

“You will let us know if you see anything, won’t you, Mister Park?” The guard’s gaze is piercing, now. Jimin takes back his previous judgment. Though he may be young and inexperienced, he is anything but stupid.

“Of course. The welfare of the people is of utmost importance.”

The guard nods. “Very good. On your way, then.”

Jimin hurries away, going as fast as the slick paths will allow him, eager to get as far from the eyes of the guard as he can. Above him, Hani is quiet, pointing out the path for Jimin to follow where her ailing mother lies. It’s not until they’re within sight of the small hut tucked into a corner of the poorest district of the village, the guard far behind them and no one else in sight, that Hani speaks.

“He weren’t talking about our wolf, was he?”

Jimin lifts her from his shoulders and sets her on the path in front of him. He gets down on his knees to be level with her and looks her right in the eyes. “Hani, you must remember your promise.”

“I will.”

-----

Hani takes his hand and leads him forward. As Jimin steps into the hut she shares with her mother, he’s met by a stench so strong, he can feel it burning in the back of his throat. It smells not of sickness, but of the slow decay of death already come. Jimin chokes down the urge to retch, conscious of Hani standing at his side.

To gather himself, he looks around the one-bedroom hut. In the far corner is a thin pallet piled high with moth-eaten rags—that must be where Hani and her mother sleep. In another corner, beneath a shelf stacked with dishware, stands a trestle table and two chairs, the crumbs of their last meal scattered across the wood. A weak fire, hardly strong enough to heat even this small room, burns in the pit in the center of the floor, a thin trail of smoke slithering its way up to the blackened, thatched ceiling.

The only other thing of note in the hut is a small chest against one wall, which Jimin assumes holds the rest of their worldly positions.

Jimin feels tears spring to the corners of his eyes but quickly wipes them away. He cannot let Hani see how affected he is by the squalor she and her mother are forced to live in. He’s here to be her beacon of hope, not to make her feel worse.

The pile of rags in the corner shifts and a pale hand pushes the blankets aside. Two eyes, fever-bright and unfocused, peer through the hazy darkness. “Hani, is that you?”

“Yes, mother.” Hani rushes to her mother’s side, delicately taking her mother’s hand between her own small ones. “I brung someone to see you.”

“Oh, baby, I wish you hadn’t.” Hani’s mother’s words are cut off by a bout of coughing. Jimin feels his heart sink in his chest. He can hear the way Hani’s mother’s breath wheezes in her lungs as she struggles to draw in enough oxygen. Already, her prognosis doesn’t seem promising. “I have no money—”

“You don’t need to worry about that, ma’am,” Jimin cuts in, stepping forward.

Hani’s mother squints up at him. “Mister Park, is that you?”

“Yes.” He kneels next to Hani and her mother. “I’m here to help, Miss—?”

“Call me Haneul, please.”

“Then I insist you call me Jimin.”

The ghost of a smile crosses Haneul’s face before it disappears behind a second coughing fit.

Jimin places the back of his hand against Haneul’s forehead. She’s clammy and burning to the touch. Jimin looks her over closely, noting how pale her skin is, and the black buboes at her throat; he knew if he looked, he would find them at her armpits and groin, too. In the corners of her mouth are flecks of congealed blood; more is matted into the blankets.

Jimin closes his eyes against a memory trying to drag him back into the past, into another time when he had looked into someone’s eyes, many eyes, and known it might be one of the last times he would see them.

Jimin turns to Hani. Keeping his voice light, he says, “Hani, I need you to do something for me.”

“Anything,” she says, jumping up. “I want to help.”

“Get a pot, draw some water from the well, and put it on the fire to boil. Put some yarrow—a small flower with white petals, you’ll find it in the front pocket of my bag—into a cup, pour the water over it, and let it steep—”

Hani is off before he finishes giving his directions, first rushing to the shelf above the table for a pot, knocking a stack of tin cups to the floor in her haste. Then she’s out the door, calling out a promise to her mother that she’ll return soon.

When Jimin is sure she’s out of earshot, he turns to lock gazes with Haneul. “How long?”

Haneul coughs. A glob of blood spills from her mouth and down her chin. She wipes it away on the corner of the blanket. “Three days.”

Jimin closes his eyes against the grief threatening to overwhelm him. “Then you know I cannot help you.”

“I know.” Haneul’s face is serene, her voice gentle, totally at peace with her fate. Jimin knows now where Hani gets her strength. “But you can help Hani.”

Panic squeezes his insides in a vice. “Has she—”

Haneul shakes her head. “The girl seems to be one of the lucky ones.”

Jimin nods. This can sometimes happen, though Jimin wonders whether luck has any place here. Is it luck to have to watch your loved ones die and wonder why you were spared? His mother had said they were lucky, too—all Jimin could feel was survivor’s guilt.

He forces those memories away. “How can I help, then? I can’t—I don’t know anything about—”

Haneul pats the back of his hand, her fingers like brittle bones against his skin. “I’ve already made arrangements with her aunt for her care. Just make sure she’s okay after I’m gone. Look out for her. She won’t understand for a while, and she’ll need—”

Another spasm interrupts Haneul. This one seems to take a toll on her, for once it’s finally over, Haneul sinks back into the blankets, her eyes closed and her chest heaving in great gasps. Jimin gently wipes the blood from her cheeks with his own handkerchief and waits for her to recover.

Finally, Haneul’s breathing evens out. Her eyes flutter open again and in their depths, Jimin sees a great determination. “Jimin—”

He hushes her. “Don’t speak; you must—”

You must promise me, Jimin: watch after my little girl.”

“I—”

Hani returns at that moment, struggling beneath the weight of the full pot, water sloshing over the sides and soaking her feet. She sets the pot on the grate over the pit then builds up the fire so the flames lick at the iron. Her expression when she looks at Jimin is fiercely proud and hopeful, and Jimin can feel his heart breaking.

Through lips gone numb, Jimin says, “I promise.”

Chapter Text

They lay Haneul in a pauper’s grave, wrapped in a shroud and placed in a splintered, wood box because they couldn’t afford a proper coffin. Standing next to Haneul’s sister, Hangil, who looks as stone-faced as a cathedral gargoyle, Jimin watches as the diggers throw shovels of dirt into the hole, wincing with each thud. As they do so, the parish priest drones a prayer, and Hani cries into his shoulder, her quiet sobs like arrows piercing Jimin’s heart.

The only other people presiding over this sham funeral are the village doctor, a man Jimin has never liked or respected, and a solicitor, Mister Jung. They stand off to the side, their hands clasped in front of them with their heads bowed, but Jimin sees right through their ruse, can sense their impatience.

Poor Haneul. You deserved much more than this.

With a final, “Amen,” the priest turns away from the fresh burial mound. He stops in front of Jimin, Hangil, and Hani, and looking them each in the eye, says somberly, “I am sorry,” before continuing to the church looming over the graveyard like a sleeping giant.

Jimin whispers a belated, “Thank you,” but the priest has already moved on, leaving him to the mercy of the two men waiting for him. He holds Hani tighter, comforting himself as much as he tries to comfort her.

The solicitor is the first to step forward. “My condolences, Mister Park,” he says, his voice filled with faux concern.

“It’s Hani you should be apologizing to,” Jimin says. “I barely knew Miss Kim.”

“Yes, of course,” Mister Jung says smoothly, his voice like oil. “It is very unfortunate the child has lost her mother. Yet I must ask, did Miss Kim mention to you—”

“Mister Jung, please. I’ve told you already, she told me only of her plans for Hani, who is to stay with her aunt.”

“Of course, Mister Park. However, you, too were named as one of Hani’s guardians, as well as a benefactor of Miss Kim’s…estate.” Mister Jung isn’t quite so good an actor that he can keep what he thinks of Haneul’s “estate” from showing in the way his lip curls right at the corner, or in the way his nostrils flare as if he’d smelled something foul. “A decision must be made—”

A wave of exhaustion hits Jimin. He sways under the combined weight of it and Hani. “Mister Jung, I don’t think this is the time to discuss it.”

Mister Jung demurs with a nod of his head. “Of course. We will reconvene later.”

Jimin heaves a sigh of relief as he watches Mister Jung walk away. In the four days since Haneul’s death, Jimin has tried to do right by her and Hani, but the added responsibility has been taxing on him. He can’t help but feel some resentment that Haneul, a woman he hadn’t known before attending to her sickbed, would lay all her troubles at his feet.

“I wish I knew what was going through my sister’s head when she made her plans,” Hangil says, a note of reprove in her tone.

“Me, too,” Jimin says just as the doctor takes Mister Jung’s place. He feels his headache worsen; he’s looking forward to this conversation less than any meeting with Mister Jung. “Good evening, doctor.”

“Well, Mister Park?”

Jimin sets Hani down and pushes her towards Hangil. “Hani, it’s time for you to go with your aunt.”

“Do I have to?” she asks, tears shining in her eyes and a pout pulling at the corners of her mouth.

“Yes, Hani. But I promise I’ll come see you tomorrow, okay?”

She goes willingly enough, her small hand held in her aunt’s. Jimin watches them go, making sure Hani is fully out of earshot before turning back to the doctor. “It is as I feared.”

The doctor closes his eyes briefly, a pained look crossing his features. “Have you any idea how she contracted it?”

Jimin shakes his head. “None. She did not say if she had come across anyone sick, and there are no other persons in the village showing symptoms.”

“Pray to God it stays that way. A plague outbreak here…”

A shiver passes over Jimin. He looks to where they had buried Haneul. “Perhaps we should have burned the body.”

Disapproval clouds the doctor’s expression. “The priest would never sanction such a heathen practice.”

Heathen. Jimin feels the slur like a punch to the gut, and a cold, tired anger wells up inside him. “Then he can pray to his God that he hasn’t damned us all.”

Jimin doesn't give the doctor a chance to respond--anyway, he's heard it all before--and turns his back on him, eager to get away before his anger causes him to say or do something he'd later regret.

"You need to learn to control yourself," his mother used to say to him. "That mouth of yours will get you in trouble."

And it had. Many times. There are still scars on his knuckles from the ruler the nun had kept on hand to punish insubordinate children. When he was older and the ruler was no longer an effective deterrent, she'd send him to the priest.

Those marks he can at least hide.

"I don't understand why you can't behave," his mother said as she dressed his wounds, and though her words were stern, there were also tears in her eyes. "Do you like to be punished?"

"No," he mumbled, wincing at the medicinal sting of the herbs. "I don't like being told how I should think or what I should believe."

"Oh, sweetheart," she said, exasperation pulling the edges of her words taut. "There's always going to be someone trying to tell you what to do. Sometimes it's easier to pretend you hear them."

"Like you do?" He asked, his words colder than ice and sharper than any blade. "Is that why you cater to these people?" He gestured to the crucifix hanging on the wall, the one still there now. "Because it's easy?" He should have stopped there, but once he let himself feel the painful thoughts that often threatened to overwhelm him in those dark, confused years of his adolescence, it was hard to stop the hemorrhage.

Despite how much it must've hurt her to hear her son speak to her with such hate, she never yelled back, would simply say: "Someday, you'll understand. When you're older."

It was an argument they repeated often; Jimin never learned, and he never understood. Not until his mother was already gone. Now, he wishes he could tell her he finally gets it, finally understands why sometimes it's better to conform than rebel.

Well, at least he learned his lesson in time to protect someone, even if he couldn't protect her.

The thought of his wolf both brings a smile to his face and makes anxiety churl in his gut. Keeping him a secret has become harder and more dangerous, and Jimin is afraid. It’s not about just them anymore; what would they do to Hani, if they were caught? What would they do to the wolf?

A quiet, selfish voice inside of him wonders, what will they do to me?

He won’t let it happen. Jimin refuses to see anyone be hurt. He knows what needs to be done, and it’s time he finds the strength within himself to see it done.

He needs to make the wolf leave. For good. For his good.

For their good.

Tonight. He'll tell the wolf tonight that he must go and never come back. That they're safer apart than they are together. And if he must, he'll make the wolf stay away.

“I know you were just at a funeral,” Jeongguk’s voice cuts through the maelstrom of Jimin’s thoughts and he looks up to see Jeongguk leaning against the graveyard’s gated entrance, a soft smile sitting high on his cheeks as he gazes fondly at Jimin, “but you look like the world has literally ended.”

Warmth suffuses Jimin. Jeongguk had said he might be able to meet Jimin this afternoon, and though Jimin had told him it wasn’t necessary, he’d been hoping he would come. The last handful of days have been stressful and Jimin needs the quiet comfort Jeongguk provides.

“Oh, Jeongguk,” Jimin says as he comes abreast of his friend. “I’m so happy to see you.”

Jeongguk opens his arms and Jimin gladly accepts the embrace, pressing his face against the leather of Jeongguk’s jerkin and inhaling the warm, sulfuric scent of the forge. He can feel heat pricking at the corners of his eyes and burrows in deeper, so Jeongguk doesn’t see him fighting to choke back tears.

He doesn’t understand where this sudden onslaught has come from. He’s seen death before, many times. Something about this death feels different, though. The utter helplessness of it, Jimin unable to do anything but keep Haneul comfortable as the illness rotted her from the inside-out. And Hani, poor Hani, who had been there for it all despite Jimin’s efforts to make her leave, who had held her mother’s hand and whispered prayers for her the whole time. Who had, in the end, wiped her mother’s face clean a final time and closed her eyelids as she finally succumbed.

It won’t end with Haneul. Jimin knows in time, there will be more sickness, more death. He has seen the plague before, knows its destruction intimately. He had hoped he and his mother had escaped it when they came to this little village, but it seems the past has caught up with him.

Jimin should have known better; there is no escaping death.

Still, he doubts this is the true reason behind his tears. Sickness and death is a part of his job, and Jimin knows he will persevere through this plague as he did the last one.

No, his pain is a more selfish one, coming not from the likely death of many of the village’s citizens, but rather the loss of something close to him. Of the sacrifice of one more thing that makes him happy.

“Hey,” Jeongguk says, wrapping his arms more solidly around Jimin’s shaking shoulders. “It’s okay, Jimin. It’ll be alright.”

Jeongguk continues to whisper sweet nothings in Jimin’s ear, continues to rock him side-to-side as his tears slowly come to an end. When he’s finally purged himself of everything that had built up inside him, Jimin remembers that they’re sharing a very private moment in a very public space, where anyone in the town could see them and make judgments.

Embarrassed, Jimin pulls back. “I’m sorry.” He tries to wipe away the tears and snot he’d gotten all over Jeongguk’s jerkin, but only makes it worse. “I don’t know what came over me, I—”

Jeongguk hushes him. “Don’t ever apologize for your emotions, not to me.” Jeongguk cradles Jimin’s face in his hands, brushing the remaining tears off Jimin’s cheeks with his thumbs. “You’ve had a rough couple of days, and I want to help you feel better. If letting you use me as your own personal handkerchief achieves that—”

Jimin pushes Jeongguk away, but he’s laughing, and for the first time in many days, the knot of tension he’s been carrying inside his chest eases a little. “You’re the worst.”

“But I make the best beef stew. Let me make you some?” Jeongguk holds out his hand. Jimin nods and takes it.

Taehyung is out of town, so they have the place to themselves. Jimin tries to douse the little flicker of hope that ignites in his breast, as this is not the time for his thoughts to stray into dangerous territory.

Jeongguk is nothing short of a perfect gentleman. When they get to the apartment, Jeongguk takes Jimin’s cloak and hangs it up next to his own then makes sure he’s settled in with a hot beverage before beginning supper. Of course, as is his way, he refuses Jimin’s offers of help, so Jimin is stuck at the table with naught to do but watch Jeongguk bustle around with smooth efficiency as he dices vegetables, peels potatoes, and cuts meat.

The combined image of Jeongguk’s proficiency in this, as with so many things, and the domesticity of it all, is a wreck on Jimin’s already fragile nerves. It would be so easy to let himself believe this is more than two friends enjoying a meal together, that if he but reached out his hand, he could have this every night.

Perhaps this was a mistake. He should have just gone home to nurse his wounds alone. He was just so desperate for comfort that he was too eager to accept any offer Jeongguk was willing to make. He needs to remember they’re only friends and that it’s likely that’s all they’ll ever be. He needs to find a way to be okay with that.

A hand placed on top of his pulls him from his spiraling thoughts. “Jimin, are you okay?”

Jimin looks up into Jeongguk’s eyes and sees concern there. Jeongguk, in the short time they’ve known each other, has always been a good friend to Jimin, has never given any indication he’s annoyed with him, or that Jimin sometimes comes on a little too strong. Still, Jimin can’t get that anxious voice inside his head to be quiet.

“I hope I’m not imposing on you,” Jimin says. “If you had other plans tonight—”

“There’s nowhere I’d rather be than here,” Jeongguk says, and his smile is warm.

Jimin ducks his head to hide the heat in his cheeks. He doesn’t understand how Jeongguk always manages to make him feel so flustered. He’s never felt this way before, not even during those early, happy days with Daesuk.

Something about Jeongguk makes it so easy to fall for him.

He coughs to cover the awkward moment. “Thank you. For inviting me, I mean. It’s been...a long day.”

“In a long week,” Jeongguk agrees. He moves over to the stove to check on the stew, gives it a stir, and returns to the table, pulling out a chair to sit across from Jimin. He extends an arm, resting his hand palm-up on the wood. He wiggles his fingers and Jimin reaches out, too, folding Jeongguk’s fingers between his own.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Jeongguk asks.

Jimin considers this for a moment, watching as Jeongguk's thumb traces lazy circles into his skin. Does he want to drag Jeongguk into his past, where only tragedy dwells? No. Does he want to continue to wallow in his memories, alone, to give into the blackened fingers that cleave to him, the dead trying to reclaim him for their own?

Also no.

"Do you know anything about the Black Death?"

Jeongguk exhales sharply. "Only a little. It never reached us. My old village was quite remote."

"How fortunate for you," Jimin says, and there is no bitterness in him, only relief that Jeongguk and his family had been spared, that they had both lived and he could share these moments with Jeongguk now. "Mine was not."

Jimin thought he’d recovered from most of those old hurts. It had been so long ago, and he’d been naught but a child, hardly able to grasp the true breadth of all the horrific things that happened. Yet, as he lets himself remember, he finds that time had not mended everything, that there are some hurts that go too deep.

His mother, lying in her sickbed, the priest and the monk physicians whispering over her still body. Her necrotic flesh, the stained sheets, the earthenware bowl, filled with her blood, set aside so casually.

The cold hands of the nun pressing into his shoulders as she told him, “You must be strong, Jimin. You must pray.”

Jimin hadn’t realized he’d started crying until he finds himself being pulled into Jeongguk’s arms. Once again, he soaks Jeongguk with his tears as he lets himself be rocked and soothed.

“We don’t have to talk about this if it’s too hard for you.”

Jimin wipes his cheeks dry and pulls back enough to look into Jeongguk's eyes. "I think I have to. If you're willing to listen."

"Of course, I'm willing. I want to know everything about you, Jimin. The good, the bad. All of it."

"You might regret that later."

Jimin meant it as a joke, but neither of them laugh, the moment still too serious for something as blithe as a pithy joke.

"How about some supper?" Jeongguk asks and the moment passes.

They return to the table. While Jimin rests, Jeongguk finishes their supper. It smells so good, meaty and warm, and by the time Jeongguk sets a bowl and a hunk of bread in front of him, Jimin feels famished.

Neither speak as they eat, which is fine with Jimin. He needs time to gather his thoughts, to ready himself to tell the story he's never shared with anyone, not even Taehyung.

Only when Jimin has drained the last of the broth from his bowl, and Jeongguk has set his spoon aside and fixed Jimin with an intense gaze he can feel even sitting so far away, does Jimin start his tale.

"The plague came to us as it came to everyone: in the body of a weary traveler seeking respite…"