The mountains have always been stunning in winter. Even now Donghyuck can admire their beauty as he hikes up the familiar path. Something in the way white dusts over the pine trees, the thick layer of snow covering the ground like a blanket, sights that used to fill Donghyuck with so much warmth he thought he would burst. The warmth is lacking now, but he trudges on regardless.
As much as he’d assured Jaemin he was doing this for his own piece of mind, he can’t stop his eyes from wandering. For closure, Donghyuck had said, curling his lips in that teary smile he knew would make his friend give in.
Fine, Jaemin had sighed. But you’re not going alone.
Somehow Donghyuck was able to convince Jaemin he’d be fine with Mark, and from there on it was easy to sneak out. Of all his friends, Mark has always been the softest when it came to him. Recently, this has increased tenfold. All Donghyuck had to do was say he felt tired with downcast eyes for Mark to hug him and send him to sleep, not suspecting a thing.
Closure. For a while, Donghyuck had almost fallen for his own words. But as soon as Mark had parked the car in the driveway of the cottage — an old thing passed down in the family, now belonging to one of Mark’s aunts — they used to frequent every winter, the memories had come flooding back. Donghyuck couldn’t let go. Not yet. Not when there’s still even the slimmest chance that he is out there.
His eyes scan every shadow for a familiar face, every tree for a figure hidden behind it, every pile of snow for— No, he can’t let his mind go there. He forces himself to keep going, allows his eyes to keep searching, even as he almost trips over his own feet two times.
There’s been search parties, of course. Donghyuck remembers every one of them, the way he’d sat in bed all day, his phone in an iron grip in his hand, awaiting a call, a text, anything. When the device finally buzzed with a notification, he nearly dropped in his hurry to read it, only to deflate again. Nothing.
It took only a month for the search parties to stop completely. Donghyuck had been furious.
“We need to find him!” He shouted, shaking with anger even as his vision was blurred with tears. “He’s out there, we can’t just leave him! He’s—”
He remembers Jeno pulling him into his arms, remembers feeling warm tears hitting the top of his head. Remembers the burning gazes of his friends on him, so pained and full of pity. It only fueled Donghyuck’s anger. They’ve already given up on him.
The anger has long subsided since. Donghyuck understands that it’s what they needed. To move on. He knew firsthand how much it hurt to hold on for so long you don’t think you’ll ever be able to let go again. He hopes that they’ll understand, too, that this is what he needs.
A hundred searchers couldn’t find him, but the voice in the back of Donghyuck’s head whispers that he will be more successful.
The tip of the mountain is near, the path suddenly growing steeper. Donghyuck reluctantly lowers his gaze to his feet to make sure he doesn’t slip. There are no safe hands ready to steady him if he stumbles this time. He’s breathing heavily by the time he reaches the top, and any remaining breath is knocked out of him when his eyes fall on the view.
It almost feels cruel, the way it doesn’t appear to have changed at all when everything else has. Two years, and the slope of the mountains is still shimmering under the sunlight with the same brightness, the huts in the distance still look like they’ve come straight out of a storybook and the frozen lake is still as beautiful as ever.
(They searched the lake too, back then. Donghyuck had barely been able to sleep that week, haunted by images of blue lips and unseeing eyes. When the news came that the search was fruitless, he wasn’t sure whether the breath he released was one of relief or disappointment.)
He looks and looks, stupidly hoping to see a figure waving at him in the distance, to hear him call for Donghyuck to come down.
Donghyuck huffs when his eyes begin to sting again, this time not because of the icy wind hitting him in the face. He can almost hear him poking fun at him, playfully calling him a crybaby even as his voice is dripping with fondness. His words often contradicted his true feelings, but Donghyuck had always been able to read him like no other.
He shakes his head, trying to rid himself of these thoughts. It would only hurt him more in the end. He sighs, a small cloud escaping his lips. The sun would be setting soon, despite the early hour. He has to get back before then, or else Mark might lose his mind.
Still, he doesn’t budge. He feels something like anticipation in his chest, the same feeling that landed him here in the first place. The feeling that tells him that something big is coming soon.
But not today, it seems.
Donghyuck reluctantly retraces his steps, making his way back to the path. All the way down, a question repeats itself in his mind, the same one that has been plaguing him every day in the past two years.
Where are you, Renjun?
Their tradition started in the winter before they graduated high school. It was meant to be a one time thing at first, but the entire trip was such a success that they decided to return every year when winter came.
Donghyuck is pretty sure these mountains are what saved their friendship; in the hectic whirlwind that is college they’d soon enough started to drift apart, each spending more time befriending people in their courses instead. It wasn’t like they’d cut off contact completely, their group chat was still alive on most days, but the time of hanging out on a daily basis was long gone. Donghyuck shared a flat with Jaemin, but their schedules clashed, so they were lucky if they got to have dinner together once a week. Donghyuck still hung out with Mark often enough, and had regular study sessions with Renjun and Jeno, but it was different. He felt it, and he knew they did too. It was a sad development, but all in all he was too busy to even process his lifelong friendships turning to dust.
Then winter came, and along with it a week-long trip with people who were steadily becoming strangers to him. They spent their days laughing and catching up, and things fell back in place so easily that it left Donghyuck giddy with happiness. He realised that this, what they had, was for forever. Even when they drift apart, their ties and love for each other would bring them together again.
That’s not the only thing Donghyuck realised that year.
The fall came slowly, then all at once. It started with his eyes drifting to meet Renjun’s, even when he was all the way across the room arguing over something with Jaemin. Then followed lingering touches that even Donghyuck couldn’t explain, yet he couldn’t stop his hands from brushing against Renjun’s, or from softly landing on the small of his back whenever they stood next to each other. These things simply happened, and Donghyuck didn’t think any more of it.
He hit the ground one morning, on the fifth day of their trip. He’d woken up early and once he realised he wouldn’t fall back asleep, he stumbled towards the small kitchen. To his surprise, Renjun was leaning against the counter as he sipped on his steaming cup of tea. For a moment Donghyuck just blinked, processing that he wasn’t the only one awake, and then Renjun was staring right back.
“Morning,” he greeted, unexpectedly soft.
Donghyuck opened his mouth before closing it again. His gaze was transfixed on where Renjun’s shirt had slipped off his shoulder, unable to look away from the sliver of revealed collar bone. Then he realised what he was doing, and quickly lifted his eyes to meet Renjun’s.
“Good morning,” he mumbled, trying (and failing) to fight off the blush rising to his cheeks.
Renjun raised an amused eyebrow, but thankfully didn’t comment. As Donghyuck dropped into one of the chairs, he wordlessly turned to place a mug under the coffee machine. Donghyuck felt a wave of gratefulness, letting out a content sigh as he leaned his head onto the palm of his hand.
Once the cup of coffee was placed in front of him, he thanked Renjun with a sleepy smile. His hands burned as he cupped them around the mug, but the heat was a million times better than the freezing cold that had seeped into his bones over the week.
Without realising it, his eyes had shifted to Renjun again. His dark hair was disheveled, falling into his eyes in messy bangs. Donghyuck felt the strange urge to run his hands through it.
He startled when he noticed the awaiting look in Renjun’s eyes, and belatedly realised he’d asked him something.
“Huh?” He asked, eloquent as ever.
Renjun snorted, shaking his head. “Nevermind, you’re clearly too tired for any physical activity right now.”
Donghyuck frowned and immediately straightened his posture in response to the challenge he might or might not have imagined in Renjun’s words.
“I’m perfectly fine,” he huffed, crossing his arms. “What did you wanna do?”
With another shake of his head, Renjun repeated himself. “I asked whether you wanted to hike up to the mountain again.”
Donghyuck’s pride was the only thing stopping him from groaning and refusing the offer. His thighs were still aching from the climb up two days ago, and though the sight definitely made up for it, he wasn’t in any rush to go through that again.
Instead of saying any of that, Donghyuck simply gave him a thin smile. “I’d love to,” he gritted through his teeth.
He pretended not to see Renjun rolling his eyes, instead rushing back to his room to get dressed.
Damn him and his pride, he thought. He ignored the part of his brain wondering what pride had to do with any of this. It’s not like he had any other reason to want to suffer through hiking with Renjun this early in the morning anyway. Alone, just the two of them. No reason at all.
An hour later, Donghyuck barely stopped himself from dramatically falling to his knees with a cry of victory as they finally reached the top of the mountain.
“That wasn’t too bad now, was it?” Renjun chuckled, despite being completely out of breath himself.
Donghyuck kept his mouth shut, but the glare he sent Renjun spoke a thousand words. He stuck his tongue out for good measure, only to flinch when a snowflake chose that exact moment to fall down, right on the tip of his tongue. His face scrunched up as he quickly retracted his tongue with a shiver.
This, of course, only made Renjun laugh harder. Donghyuck opened his mouth to complain, but the words got stuck in his throat.
The smile on Renjun’s face was bright enough to rival the sun, eyes squeezed shut as he bent over with laughter. The snowflakes in his hair made him look almost magical, like sparkles making him shine even brighter. Donghyuck’s throat suddenly felt very, very dry.
Naturally, he bent down to scoop a handful of snow and throw it directly at Renjun.
His laughter came to a stop with a surprised oof. Donghyuck barely had the time to revel in his glory before he recognised the familiar glint in Renjun’s eyes, the one that always spelled trouble.
Renjun did not wait. Instead he used both his hands to create a snowball nearly rivalling the size of his own head and, without a second of hesitation, launched it towards Donghyuck. It happened so fast that Donghyuck just barely had the time to jump to the side, barking out a laugh when the snowball crashed to the ground.
“Might have to work on your aim, Huang,” Donghyuck teased with a wink.
The glint in Renjun’s eyes intensified. Donghyuck felt something stir in his stomach.
“Oh you’re on, Lee.”
Before he had the chance to process his words, a heap of snow hit him right in the chest. Donghyuck clutched it, gasping dramatically. He recovered quickly though, wasting no time to retaliate.
It didn’t take long for both of their coats to be soaking wet, but even that didn’t slow down their fight. Donghyuck let out a particularly joyful whoop when his snowball hit Renjun square on the cheek, only to be cut off as Renjun decided to deck him right there and then.
“What the fuck!” Donghyuck shrieked through his laughter when his back sinked into the wet snow. Renjun gave him a smug grin from where he was sitting on top of him.
“This is why you don’t start a fight you know you can’t win, Hyuck.”
Those words were enough to ignite a new spark of resistance in Donghyuck. He pushed forward, switching their positions so that Renjun was the one lying in the snow. The boy in question screamed as he trashed, trying to get Donghyuck off of him. His movements were halted by Donghyuck’s hands pinning down his arms, their faces close as he smirked.
“I win,” he breathed.
They were both gasping for breath, and it was then, as Renjun’s exhales fanned over Donghyuck’s lips, that Donghyuck became aware of their proximity. His eyes widened, but for some reason he couldn’t get himself to back away. He was captivated by Renjun’s hooded eyes on him, making him feel dizzy, and drank up the sight of Renjun’s flushed cheeks.
Then Renjun’s eyes lowered to his lips, and Donghyuck felt his heart stutter in his chest.
“Jun,” he murmured, barely a whisper. Renjun didn’t look away.
Slowly, Donghyuck let go of Renjun’s right arm and instead used his free hand to cup his cheek and raise his head ever so slightly. Renjun parted his lips, a tiny cloud escaping as he exhaled. It would make Donghyuck giggle if he couldn’t feel it against his cheek, the warmth radiating off of Renjun.
They stay like that, frozen in the snow, for one everlasting minute before Renjun said something under his breath and leaned in.
Next thing Donghyuck knew, there were soft lips pressed against his own and a steady heat coursing through his veins. It wasn’t perfect; they were wet, tired and shivering from the cold, but none of that mattered. For one glorious moment everything faded away, and there was only them. Donghyuck and Renjun, kissing in the snow.
During the last two days of their trip, they shared many more kisses. Behind the corner in the hallway, by the frozen lake, behind closed bedroom doors. The talking only came later, after weeks of avoidance as Donghyuck tried to figure out his feelings. In the end, everything fell into place and by New Year’s eve the two of them were dating. They kissed again as the countdown to a new year ended, and Donghyuck recalls wishing for many more years like these.
He only got three more before everything came crumbling down.
“You shouldn’t be going out there,” is the first thing Mark says when Donghyuck gets home.
Donghyuck merely rolls his eyes as he toes off his shoes.
“I’m serious, dude. It’s dangerous.”
“I’ve been up the mountains plenty of times before, Mark, and nothing ever happened.”
“Not alone, though,” Mark counters, and Donghyuck can see regret flood his eyes as soon as the words escape.
Donghyuck flinches as if he were hit, body tensing.
“Sorry,” Mark says, more subdued now. “I shouldn’t have said that.”
“No, you shouldn’t have,” Donghyuck agrees before pushing past Mark to go to his room.
Mark’s heavy sigh follows him as he closes the door behind him.
Donghyuck saw Renjun for the last time by the doorway of the cottage as he asked him to stay.
“Forecasts predict a snowstorm tonight, and the sun is already setting,” he’d reasoned. “Whatever it is you lost—”
“—will be gone forever tomorrow, so I need to go now,” Renjun finished, stubborn as ever.
It confused Donghyuck at the time. Usually, Renjun was the more level-headed one in their relationship, the one keeping Donghyuck from doing stupid shit, not the other way around.
“It’s not worth it,” Donghyuck pleaded.
Renjun had smiled softly, placing a palm against Donghyuck's cheek. Donghyuck’s eyes flutter closed on instinct, and then there were warm lips pressed against his forehead.
“Believe me when I say it is,” Renjun said then, eyes dripping with so much love that it almost made Donghyuck’s heart jump right out of his chest.
With a sigh, Donghyuck did the thing he’d regret for the rest of his days, and gave in.
“Be careful,” he urged, landing a last peck on Renjun’s lips. They were slightly chapped from the cold. “If you’re not back in an hour…”
“I will be,” Renjun promised.
The snowstorm hit half an hour later.
“They found a body in the mountains.”
Donghyuck froze when he heard those words. Distantly, he realised his hands were shaking.
“No,” he whispered, looking up at Jaemin.
His friend’s eyes widened as if only just realising what he said. “No, wait, it’s not him! It’s not him, Donghyuck.”
The world started spinning again, and Donghyuck halts his shaking hands by wringing them under his legs. It’s not him.
“But…” Jaemin seemed hesitant to continue.
“What is it,” Donghyuck asked, more a command than a question. He ignored the fear flickering in his chest.
Jaemin bit his lip, but complied. “It was the body of one of the villagers. A guy who’s lived there his entire life and knew the mountains like the back of his hand. When they found him, he—”
Donghyuck frowned, nudging Jaemin’s arm. He nodded, avoiding Donghyuck’s gaze.
“There were these, uh, carvings in his chest. Deep. Local police think some kind of wolf got him, but it had to be huge.”
It had started snowing again outside, Donghyuck noted.
“Whatever it is, it’s dangerous and still out there.”
Donghyuck moved his eyes away from the window. He noticed the paleness of Jaemin’s face, the redness around his eyes.
“You think this thing got Renjun,” he stated. He could basically see the thought on Jaemin’s expression.
Jaemin finally met his gaze with teary eyes. “I don’t want to, but…”
“It would make sense,” Donghyuck finished for him. A familiar spark of irritation ignited.
Relief flooded Jaemin’s body, clear in the way his shoulders slump. Relief that Donghyuck seemed to understand.
Donghyuck almost felt guilty for taking it away again so soon.
“Except that they never found his body.”
There it was, Jaemin’s eyebrows lowering themselves into a frown.
“Believe what you want to, Jaem, but he’s still out there.” He was aware how deluded he sounded, but he was already surrounded by looks of pity wherever he went. He was too tired to pretend, too desperate to let go of his faith. “I know he is.”
“Donghyuck, it’s been two months.”
Donghyuck pressed his lips together, refusing to respond to that.
“You can’t—” Jaemin paused, pressing the bridge of his nose. “You can’t just let yourself waste away like this. Renjun wouldn’t have wanted that.”
“Don’t talk about him like that,” Donghyuck snapped, losing grip of the calmth he’d been trying to show. “He’s not dead.”
“You think I don’t want to believe that?” Jaemin’s voice was growing louder now, frustration evident. “He was special to me too, Donghyuck.”
“Stop it.” The words came out more pleading now, less angry.
“I know you need time, and I’ll give you as much as you need,” Jaemin continued. “But you can’t just waste your life waiting for someone who isn’t coming back. You need to let go.”
“Get out,” Donghyuck said, voice shaking.
“Get out!” He screamed, and Jaemin’s eyes widened in surprise.
He must realise he’d crossed a line, as he complied and got up. Before slipping out of the room, Donghyuck heard him murmur an apology.
Donghyuck waited until Jaemin was gone before lowering his head in his hands. His entire body was shaking now, warm tears flowing over his cheeks. He forced himself to take deep breaths in an attempt to calm himself down.
Renjun wasn’t dead, no matter what everyone else thought. He was sure of it.
Donghyuck startles when Mark slaps a newspaper on the table, hot tea spilling over his hand.
“Fuck,” he hisses, putting down his mug while bringing his burnt hand to his mouth.
“You’re not going out there again.”
Donghyuck rolls his eyes, annoyed, but doesn’t answer as he gets up to put his hand under cold water.
“I’m serious, Donghyuck.”
“I know you are,” he huffs, “but that won’t stop me.”
The pain has subsided. Donghyuck turns to faucet off and wipes his hands on the kitchen towel before sitting down again.
“They found another body.”
Donghyuck pauses at that, finally looking at Mark. Concern is clear in his gaze, as usual.
“The wolves again?”
“That’s what they’re saying. They’re also saying that the woman has been dead for less than a day.”
Taking another sip from his tea, Donghyuck let the words settle in his mind.
“Whatever thing has been killing people is out there right now,” Mark presses. “Promise me you won’t go to the mountains again.”
Donghyuck stays quiet.
“I can’t lose you too, Hyuck. Please.”
The fear in his friend’s voice almost makes him cave in. Almost.
“You won’t lose me,” he says instead, a loose promise. Some days, he thinks that he’s lost already. Renjun took Donghyuck’s heart with him when he went up there, and never returned to give it back.
“Don’t make me call Jaemin. I’ll lock you in your room if I have to.”
Mark’s attempt at sounding threatening is enough to make Donghyuck snort. “I’d like to see you try.”
They stare at one another, both too stubborn to break eye-contact. As expected, Mark is the one to give in first. “At least take me with you.”
No way, Donghyuck thinks, but stays silent. “Fine,” he bites out. “Tomorrow, we leave by noon.”
He doesn’t wait to hear Mark’s agreement as he places his empty mug in the sink before retreating to his room. Better to catch some extra sleep; he’ll have to get up early if he wants to leave before Mark wakes up.
Donghyuck never told anyone about the letter. It’s a selfish, cruel deed, but he keeps it secret still, hidden under his favourite jumper in the back of his closet at home.
It arrived in the first week of spring after Renjun went missing. He remembers it vividly, spotting the letter that had been slipped underneath his door, recognising the careful handwriting on the back of it. His eyes had welled up with tears in an instant, even before opening it, even while part of him wondered whether this was some sick joke. He was overwhelmed by relief, hope of seeing Renjun again and more joy than he’d felt in three months and sixteen days, only for it all to drain when his eyes scanned the content of the letter.
Two sentences. Just seven words. Was that all their relationship was worth?
Please don’t look for me. I’m sorry.
Donghyuck felt nothing and way too much all at the same time, anger and disappointment and so much confusion all muffled by the exhaustion that nowadays pulled at his bones every waking hour. He crumpled the letter and threw it in the bin next to his desk before getting into bed and curling under his blanket. He didn’t sleep, instead blankly staring at the ceiling.
It was some time past midnight when he crawled out of bed again, reaching into the bin to retrieve the letter. He was careful as he placed it flat on his desk, using his palms to iron it out. He read the words, again and again, trying to uncover some kind of hidden message. Some kind of explanation. But there was nothing.
If Renjun was able to send him a letter, he had to be okay, right? That’s what Donghyuck told himself.
He felt hurt, confused and angry, but beneath it all was an ocean of relief.
Renjun was alive.
Donghyuck has been roaming around the mountain for a while when he hears it.
He’s not sure what it is, but the sound reminds him of the batting of wings. It’s too loud to be from a bird, though, so Donghyuck decides it must’ve been the wind. Years of dealing with howling and banging on the walls at night has taught him that the wind around here gets violent more often than not.
Then he hears the scream.
As much as he wants to chalk it up to the wind as well, or his imagination, he knows it was real. He’s frozen, his mind screaming at him to run back to the cottage before whatever got this person got him too, but he ignores it.
He’s been searching for what happened to Renjun; what if this is it?
He runs in the direction of the scream before he can change his mind. He’d expected it to come from somewhere beyond the trees, where one would expect the wolves to be, but instead Donghyuck finds himself approaching a clearing. Nothing but endless snow fills his vision, yet he keeps going.
At some point he thinks he sees something in the corner of his eye, some quick movement accompanied by that same noise he’d heard earlier. He whirls around. Nothing.
He flinches when he hears something else. A groan. A very human, very pained groan.
Following the sound, Donghyuck looks around wildly until his eyes fall on a black figure in the distance. He picks up his pace, calling out, “Hey! Are you okay there?”
His steps slowly come to a halt when he gets closer and he raises his hand to cover his mouth.
The man must be about in his late fifties, maybe older. It’s hard to make out when his face is contorted in pain, mouth open in a soundless scream and eyes squeezed shut. His thick winter coat has been ripped open, the dark material shining where it’s covered in blood. The woollen sweater the man is wearing underneath is soaked in it. Donghyuck can’t see the wounds, but they must be deep if they amount to this much blood. His eyes are glued to the dark spots of red staining the pristine white snow, almost beautiful.
Another groan startles him into action, and Donghyuck drops to his knees next to the man, hands hovering over him. He’s panicking, unsure what to do.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” he’s saying nonsensically. “I’m— I’ll add pressure to the wound to stop the bleeding? Is that okay?”
He can barely make out a small movement of the man’s head, a pained nod. Donghyuck hurries to press his gloved hands against the most bloody area of the man’s torso, heart constricting in his chest when the man yells out in agony.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Donghyuck sobs.
“Monster—” The man chokes out, before getting interrupted by a coughing fit. “It will come back,” he heaves. “The monster.”
Donghyuck shakes his head, trying to make sense of what the man is saying. Is he talking about the wolves? Or is something else terrorising these mountains?
Instead of asking the man to explain, he repeats his earlier mantra of ‘it’s okay’s.
“The mountain,” the man starts again, voice becoming weaker. Donghyuck notices to his horror that all colour has been drained from his face and presses down harder on the wound.
“Save your energy,” he pleads, though Donghyuck isn’t sure what the man should even save his energy for. Help is not coming, not all the way up here, and Donghyuck had been foolish enough to leave his phone behind in the cottage.
“The mountain,” the man repeats, more urgent this time. A hand grips Donghyuck’s arm, almost painfully, forcing him to meet the dying man’s gaze. “The mountain doesn’t like to return what it takes.”
Donghyuck frowns, the sentence stirring a memory from long ago. He’s heard it before, though he’s unable to recall where right now.
This time he can’t stop himself from asking, “What?”
The man’s eyes glaze over, the hand on Donghyuck’s arm dropping to the snow. It’s too late. Donghyuck presses down on his chest again, calling out for him, but he knows it’s futile. He’d seen the life slip out of the man’s eyes, had witnessed the second his heart stopped beating.
They were all huddled around the fireplace when Jaemin made the suggestion.
Renjun had raised his eyebrows, sceptical. “Seriously? Urban legends?”
Jaemin pouted. “As someone who believes in ghosts, you aren’t allowed to judge.”
This made Donghyuck snort. Renjun only shrugged, admitting his defeat. “Fine, go ahead then.”
What followed was an hour of horror stories becoming steadily more ridiculous. Jaemin easily won when it came to inventing stupid tales, though Jeno was a surprisingly strong competitor. His story about a three legged axe murderer left Donghyuck gasping for breath, leaning into Renjun’s side with laughter.
Once everyone had calmed down again, Renjun turned to Mark with a curious smile. “You grew up around here, right?”
Mark frowned. “Kind of? I used to stay here with my family every winter break for as long as I can remember.”
“So you’ve talked to some of the villagers?”
With a shrug, Mark nodded. Renjun leaned forward, a spark in his eye that Donghyuck was all too familiar with. The movement forced Donghyuck to lift his head from Renjun’s shoulder, much to his disgruntlement, but the conversation had sparked his curiosity too.
“Surely there must be some myths about this place? Ghost stories, legends, whatever. What do the people around here tell their kids to keep them from going into the mountains?”
If it were anyone else, Donghyuck might’ve been taken aback by the enthusiasm he spoke with, but this was Renjun. He loved these kinds of things, and Donghyuck loved his excitement whenever someone chose to indulge him.
Mark seemed to think for a minute, before his eyes widened and a grin spread on his face. “Actually, I think I know one!”
Jaemin whooped loud enough to make Jeno fall off of his seat, making them all break into laughter again. Once their cackles faded, Mark shifted his chair closer to the fire and cleared his throat.
“Okay, I’m not sure if I remember this correctly, but I’ll try. Uhm, okay, so—”
There once was an old woman who lived at the foot of the mountain. She’d lived there her entire life and knew the mountains like no other; its paths, its fauna and its needs. The other villagers thought she was strange, but respected her, for she would always help them when needed. So they returned her kindness and ignored her tales of the mountain’s soul and her retellings of what she claimed the mountain had whispered to her.
Unfortunately, her grandson did not share her consideration. He was selfish and greedy, only ever looking for ways to exploit others. When one winter he resided with his grandmother, he grew fascinated with the mountain as well. However, instead of his grandmother’s genuine love, he could only think of all the ways he could gain from the mountain. He wondered what treasures could be buried beneath the snow, what gems it was hiding in its crevices. His grandmother warned him not to anger the mountain, but he’d only scoffed in response.
So he went up there, day after day, searching for riches. His frustration grew after every unsuccessful search, but he refused to give up.
One day, his efforts finally paid off.
He stumbled upon a cave, hidden away deep in the mountain. At a glance, it was empty. He was about to wander off again when his eyes caught something shiny — a gem, he believed. He quickly climbed into the cave and discovered that it was filled with various things; jewelry, coats, even children’s toys. It was strange, but he didn’t question it. Instead he hurried to collect all the objects that had any kind of worth, diamond necklaces and golden earrings. He was filled with joy by the time he left the cave, but this was soon to fade. Halfway home, it began to snow, harder and harder, until he was stuck in a snowstorm. He couldn’t see his own hands in front of him, only white.
It felt like a miracle when he stumbled his way out of the mountain, spotting his grandmother’s cottage in the distance. He didn’t notice, but as soon as he entered the cottage, snow stopped falling and the harsh wind came to a rest. His relief quickly faded when he checked his pockets, replaced by a blinding fury. All of the riches he’d collected were gone, but that wasn’t all. The lighter his late father had given him, a family heirloom, had vanished.
He returned to the mountain the next day, determined to get back what he deemed his. He found the cave again, and the treasures were there, as if he’d never taken them at all. There, among them, was his father’s lighter. Filled with anger, he grasped as much as he could before stalking home again. This time, the mountain wasn’t as merciful.
See, the mountain doesn’t like to return what it takes. And it definitely does not take kindly to thieves.
Another snowstorm hit, but there was no escape. The man kept walking for what felt like an eternity, wandering the mountains until his lips were blue and eyelashes frozen. Even then, he couldn’t stop. It was like he no longer had control of his body, and he was forced to keep going even when every part of his body was aching.
Only when winter melted away, did the man find his way back home again.
After months of isolation, he’d learned his lesson, but it was too late. Every winter, as soon as the first snow hit the tips of the mountain, he was doomed to return up there again. There was no escaping it, and for the rest of his days he would spend his winters in agony, suffering for his greed.
There was no sound besides the hissing of the fire when Mark finished.
“That’s kind of lame,” Renjun finally said, disappointment evident in his voice.
Mark shrugged apologetically. “Sorry, dude. That’s all I got.”
Donghyuck silently agreed with Renjun. He’d been hoping for something scarier, maybe involving dangerous creatures or serial killers. A vengeful mountain, though? Not that epic.
“Should I get more marshmallows?” Jeno mused, and just like that the topic of legends and myths vanished from their minds.
Donghyuck never really thought of Mark’s story again. It’d just been another folktale, albeit a boring one. The memory of that night was clouded by s’mores and laughter, and the warmth of being surrounded by the people he loved the most.
Donghyuck’s tears have dried by the time Mark comes searching for him. He thinks he’s imagining the calls of his name at first, but then he recognises the approaching voice for his friend’s. Part of him wants to shout back, let Mark know he’s here, but he’s frozen still. So he waits.
“Donghyuck!” Hurried footsteps, muffled by the snow. “Dude, you promised—”
His words come to an abrupt halt along with the footsteps. Donghyuck can hear Mark taking in a sharp breath.
“Shit. Oh god, is he—?”
Donghyuck nods mutely.
“Oh my god, fuck,” Mark gasps. Donghyuck flinches when he feels a hand on his shoulder. “Hyuck, take a step back, okay?”
He watches as more blood drips on the snow.
“Hyuck, come on.” Another hand on his side carefully turns him around, forcing his eyes away from the scene. Donghyuck blinks when Mark’s pale face appears in front of him. “Are you hurt?”
Donghyuck opens his mouth, but only a whimper leaves his mouth. In the end he just shakes his head. Mark gives him a once-over to confirm, before letting out a shaky breath.
“Okay, good. I’m going to call the police, okay?” He nods again. “Don’t— don’t look at the body. Everything is going to be fine.”
Mark nudges him away, already fishing his phone out of his pocket. After staring at him for another minute, Donghyuck takes a shaky step away from him, away from the dead man. It simultaneously feels like years and mere seconds before he hears the buzz of people entering the scene. He catches glimpses of a brancard and men with badges. Mark is talking to an officer somewhere behind him, but Donghyuck doesn’t pay attention to the words. Instead, he hears the dying man’s last words, over and over again.
The mountain doesn’t like to return what it takes.
He hears Renjun’s voice, frantic. I need to find it.
Donghyuck is barely aware that he’s walking again, advancing into the mountain. No one calls for him to come back, he doubts anyone even noticed his absence. He trudges through snow that keeps getting deeper, unsure where his feet are taking him but confident that it’s where he’s supposed to be.
Before he knows it, the murmurs of other people have faded completely. All he sees is endless white.
Donghyuck paused his pacing, hands balled into a fist. Three hours. The wind was still howling outside, smashing snowflakes against the windows.
“He’ll be back,” Jaemin repeated, head buried in his hands. “He’ll be fine.”
Curled up on the sofa, Mark nodded in agreement, though his eyes were wide with fear.
Donghyuck huffed, eyes stinging with tears. “Fine? Have you seen the weather outside?”
Jaemin flinched at his words, but raised his head in defiance. “It’s Renjun, he’ll have figured something out.”
“Exactly,” Jeno agreed. He stood up, slowly approaching Donghyuck like he was some kind of wounded animal. Then, when Donghyuck didn’t react, he pulled him in a cautious hug. “He’ll be okay, Hyuckie. He has to be.”
Despite the horrible feeling in his gut telling him otherwise, Donghyuck nodded. He had to believe him.
“I just don’t understand,” he sniffled. “I told him it was stupid to go out at this time. I told him. What could possibly be so important that he had to go find it?”
He felt Jeno stiffen and instantly knew. Whatever it was, Renjun had told Jeno.
Frowning, Donghyuck pulled back. There was a pained look in Jeno’s eyes, something so close to pity that it made Donghyuck’s stomach churn.
“What is it?”
Jeno’s eyes widened and he stammered something before shutting his mouth again. Donghyuck noticed his furtive glance at the others.
Sure enough, when Donghyuck looked at them, their faces all held that same expression.
“I asked,” he repeated slowly, “What is it?”
“You’re not supposed to know,” Jeno said quietly, eyes downcast.
Donghyuck felt close to exploding if someone didn’t explain what was going on right now.
“Can someone please just tell me what was so important that my boyfriend might’ve gotten himself—” he broke off the sentence, unable to finish. “I deserve to know.”
“It was an engagement ring, okay?” Jaemin snapped. The moment the words escaped, he slammed a hand over his mouth. Donghyuck could hear Mark hiss a low ‘Jaemin!’ in warning, but it was too late.
His mind was whirling, unable to understand.
Distantly, he realised Jeno was talking to him again, his hand on Donghyuck’s shoulder the only thing grounding him to reality.
“Like I said, you weren’t supposed to know,” he said nervously. Then, with a forced chuckle he added, “Renjun will murder us for telling you once he’s back.”
If he gets back, his traitorous mind added. It was pushed aside by the other thought overwhelming his mind.
As if Jeno could see right through him, he squeezed his shoulder comfortingly. “It’s not your fault, Hyuckie.”
That was the last drop for Donghyuck to let out a choked sob. “How is it not my fault?”
His friends’ voices blurred together as they assured him again and again that Donghyuck wasn’t to blame, but his mind had already been made up. He knew that if something, anything, had happened to Renjun, he wouldn’t be able to forgive himself for as long as he lived.
The snowfall has fledged into a full-blown storm now, and Donghyuck is pretty sure he couldn’t go back even if he wanted to. He can’t even see where he’s going, yet he doesn’t feel like he’s lost. He feels like he’s walking with a purpose.
At some point, he makes out the shapes of trees around him. That means he’s approaching the lower regions of the mountain, though he’s not sure on which side of it.
He comes to a sudden halt when his feet trip over a large branch, and next thing he knows he’s landing face first in the snow. It’s like the sudden cold wakes him up as he rolls onto his back and gasps for air, shivering all over. The clouded sky sparkles with falling snow and Donghyuck takes a moment to take in its beauty. He’s no longer in the middle of the storm, shielded by the trees, but there’s only so much the branches can protect him from.
A snowflake lands on his forehead. Slowly, Donghyuck gets up.
There’s nothing familiar in his surroundings, and he knows without a doubt that he’s never been in these parts of the mountain before. He tries to ignore the fear clawing at his heart, to stay rational so he can figure out a way back. After a moment of contemplation, he decides to go upwards. He knows the top of the mountain, is familiar with every part of it. If he can reach it, getting home will be a walk in the park (albeit a very cold, very wet park).
Except, his plan quickly crumbles. Unless he was up to an hour of actual climbing — which he definitely does not have the right equipment for — he will have to take a detour. The path he’d been following up cuts off into a steep wall of rocks. Donghyuck sighs as he looks up, deciding that the climb is too high for him, especially in the state he’s in. With his winter coat and gloves soaked by the snow, his movements are rather stunted. Unsure what else to do, he chooses to walk along the length of the wall, hoping that at some point it’ll turn into something less steep and more manageable.
That’s not exactly what happens, though.
He’s been walking for a while, body steadily growing tired and eyes fixed on the ground so he doesn’t trip again. His left hand runs over the mountainside, a measure he takes to make sure he’ll notice when there’s a shift in the slope. He’s pondering on how likely it is that he’ll die of hypothermia if he takes a nap right here, in the snow, when the rock under his hand is suddenly replaced by thin air.
Donghyuck turns his head so fast that a bolt of pain goes through his neck, making him grimace. However, the pain is forgotten as soon as his eyes take in the sight before him, and his mouth falls open. He rubs his eye, then looks again to see whether he’s imagining things, but no, it’s still there.
A cave, hidden in the mountain. Dry and away from the snow and the icy wind. It almost seems too good to be true.
Never one to take things for granted, Donghyuck quickly maneuvers himself between the gap in the mountain and prays he’s not invading the nest of some wild animal. He lets out a breath of relief when, for the first time in hours, it doesn’t feel like his exposed skin is being cut open by the wind. Though the cave is far from warm, it is a large improvement to the weather outside.
He looks around as he rubs his hands together in an attempt to unfreeze his fingers. The opening of the cave is thankfully large enough for light to enter, illuminating most of the space. Donghyuck is surprised to see how big it is; the walls go high enough that he can’t make out the top parts of it, nervously wondering if there were any bats looming above. The cave itself was about twice as large as his own bedroom, giving him more than enough space to stretch his legs (as if that’s necessary) and explore. Sure enough, his eyes soon fall on objects scattered across the cave. He lets out a soft gasp when he makes out a small pile of burnt wood further in, as if someone had lit a fire there.
Scanning the cave with renewed curiosity, he quickly finds other signs affirming he isn’t the first person to stumble upon this place. Boots, left by the wall on the right, a coat and scarf, neatly folded next to it. Beside the various discerned items of clothing spread over the place, there are also more valuable items, such as jewelry and a smartphone with a cracked screen. Donghyuck’s eyes roam over each and every object he can find, wondering how on earth it ended up here. It doesn’t look like it all belonged to the same person; he’s found multiple phones by now, some far older than the other ones, and a wallet that looked like it had been made decennia ago. Something about it all strikes him as familiar, though he’s left feeling unsure of what it reminds him of.
It almost looks like someone has been hoarding these things.
As he approaches the makeshift fireplace, Donghyuck notices something right next to it. A black box, small enough to fit in the palm of his hand. The box looks velvety, not a sprinkle of dirt covering it and lacking any of the dust that layers the other objects. It's curious, and Donghyuck barely hesitates before hunching down to pick it up. Up close, the box is more recognisable, and the air is suddenly punched out of his lungs.
Surely, this isn’t…
No, just the thought is ridiculous. How would it end up here, of all places? Yet, this little box is identical to the ones so often shown in movies, and part of him already knows what he’ll find when he opens it. Still, he has to be sure.
He puts it down so that he can take off his gloves, scared that he’ll drop it otherwise. With his hands now bared, he takes hold of it again, running a finger over the smooth fabric of the box. He holds his breath as he carefully pries it open, and a lump forms in his throat when he catches sight of its content.
The design is simple. Silver, with in the middle a light engraving of a single snowflake. The ring shines as if it had been bought today, instead of over two years ago.
He barely has the time to process any of this before the sound of batting wings approaches, similar to what he’d heard earlier that day. Closing the lid, he holds onto the box tightly as he whirls around, just in time to see a big white shape race towards him.
The impact is instantaneous. He’s pushed backwards, pain shooting through his back as it smashes against the floor, and he tries to gasp for air as a heavy weight pushes down on his chest. He’d narrowly avoided smashing his head against the ground, but it’s hard to feel grateful when he can feel claws digging into his shoulders. For a moment, his vision is blurred by the pain. He hurries to blink it away.
When the world comes back into focus, he feels like he’s falling all over again.
Because there, hovering above him, sitting on top of him, is an actual living dragon.
The creature is undeniably stunning, beautiful in ways fairytales could never capture. Donghyuck stares wide-eyed and the dragon stares back. Its scales are silver white, like the purest of snow, and from its forehead protrude two curled horns, glimmering dangerously in the dim lighting of the cave. From where he’s being held down, Donghyuck can’t make out the rest of its body, but he can tell — feel — that it’s big, bigger than any animal he’s encountered before. Somewhere behind its head, he catches a glimpse of a large tail swirling from side to side, reminding him of a cat. He’s in awe of its beauty, but no matter how magical the creature above him is, it is also inarguably dangerous. Any possible doubt he could’ve had about that vanishes when it digs its claws deeper into his skin, and Donghyuck looks down to see them covered in blood he’s sure isn’t his.
The face of the old man flashes before his mind, and he realises the fate that awaits him.
He can’t help but let out a whimper as blind panic takes hold of his body. He’s unable to move. Even if he wasn’t paralysed by fear, the weight on top of him is too much to push off. As he feels the sharp claws finally cutting through his skin, hot tears pool in his eyes, which he raises to meet the dragon’s. The first thing he recognises in them is anger, a glare so strong it makes Donghyuck want to curl into himself. Except, he notices that the glare isn’t directed at him, not really, but at something slightly to his left.
Slow, as to not to startle the dragon into killing him, he turns his head. He frowns, blinking through his tears to see only his own hand resting on the stone, still clutching the— oh.
He drops the box as if it burned him, watching ruefully as it tumbles away from him. For a second the weight on his chest lightens and he’s hopeful that the dragon will jump after it, but that never happens. Donghyuck looks up again, and this time the creature is staring at him, gaze distrustful but far less heated than before. Then he looks, really looks into its eyes, taking in its strangely warm brown colour and oddly familiar shape. Unlike the many images he’d seen before, the dragon’s irises aren’t slits like cats or reptiles, instead appearing almost… human.
Something clicks into place then, as Donghyuck finally realises why these eyes look so familiar to him. It’s insane, impossible even, and he feels more than a little crazy for even considering this possibility. At the same time, he doesn’t think he’s ever been as sure of anything in his life.
In a hushed tone, he asks, “Renjun?”
The creature freezes, claws that had been steadily digging deeper pausing as its eyes widen almost imperceptibly. All of it only makes Donghyuck more sure that he’s right, madness be damned. He feels breathless as he repeats the name, slightly louder this time.
Something flashes in the dragon’s gaze — recognition? — and then the weight is gone as suddenly as it had appeared.
“Wait!” He calls out when the dragon, Renjun, makes his way to a dark tunnel in the back of the cave that Donghyuck had previously missed. It must be where he’d appeared from before, explaining why Donghyuck never saw him coming. He scrambles to get upright, feeling only slightly lightheaded due to the blood that was still seeping through his (thankfully shallow) wounds.
To his relief, Renjun actually does pause, turning his head to look at him. Any semblance of hostility has completely vanished from his eyes now, and Donghyuck frowns as he takes in the way Renjun’s head is lowered, body almost hunched over. Instead of fury, his eyes are filled with what appears to be fear and, maybe, remorse.
Donghyuck doesn’t let himself linger on that for too long, mind clouded by the fact that Renjun is here. Donghyuck has finally found him. He lets out a laugh, a mixture of disbelief and relief.
“Renjun,” he says, for the third time now. His head is too muddled by the day’s events to come up with anything else. That’s the only important part, anyway.
Renjun shifts his gaze, looking between the tunnel and Donghyuck.
“Please don’t leave again,” Donghyuck whispers. Renjun hunches down further. Then, to Donghyuck’s surprise, he turns around and walks towards him.
Donghyuck has a full view of his dragon form now. The scales cover the entirety of his body, no doubt offering the perfect camouflage in these snowy mountains. His sides are adorned by a pair of large wings, their shape almost batlike.
As Renjun approaches, Donghyuck realises his eyes aren’t fixed on Donghyuck, but on something on the ground. The ring.
Donghyuck stays still, curious to see what he’ll do. He simply watches as Renjun circles the small box before nudging it forward with his snout, rolling it to Donghyuck’s feet.
“You want me to take it?” Donghyuck asks.
Renjun’s gaze doesn’t waver as he dips his head.
Donghyuck complies, picking it up before slipping it into the pocket of his coat. Then, with a surge of courage, he reaches out towards Renjun.
In a second, his entire demeanour changes. Renjun reels backwards, wings spreading slightly as he growls. It’s like the human part of Renjun vanished into thin air, expression betraying nothing but anger once more. Donghyuck stands still, hand still outstretched and mouth agape as he tries to understand Renjun’s reaction.
“I’m sorry,” he quickly says once he manages to find his voice again, but it’s too late. Renjun is closing in on him, claws scraping threateningly over the stone ground, and Donghyuck has no option but to back off.
With a glance behind him, he realises Renjun is pushing him towards the exit of the cave.
“No!” The word slips out before his mind is able to catch up with his mouth, and his feet halt into place. Calmer, he adds, “I’m not leaving. I only just found you.”
His pleadings seem to fall to deaf ears as Renjun huffs, smoke leaving his flaring nostrils.
“You can’t make me leave,” Donghyuck says firmly, though his voice is shaking.
That is clearly the wrong thing to say, because the next second Renjun is lunging forward again. Just like the first time, his movements are too quick for Donghyuck to dodge, and he’s soon thrown backwards once more. Except he isn’t quite as lucky this time. His head collides with stone and before he can so much as scream, everything turns black.
He wakes up to someone shaking his shoulder.
“Hyuck, wake up. Please wake up.”
His eyelids flutter open, and he’s met with Mark’s concerned face hovering over him. Memories come flooding back in an instant and he takes in a sharp breath. He pushes himself up in a hurry, flinching when pain surges through his chest.
“Careful there, dude. You’re bleeding.”
How did Mark find him? Last he was aware of, he’d been on the other side of the mountain. He looks around and is surprised to see the cottage in the distance.
“How did I get here?” He asks, clearing his throat when his voice cracks.
Mark gives him an odd look. “What do you mean? I found you here, Hyuck. You must’ve passed out on your way back after something attacked you.” His eyebrows knit together into a small frown. “Don’t ever do that again, by the way. You can’t just wander off like that, especially not after…” He doesn’t finish his sentence, instead shaking his head. “I was worried sick.”
Donghyuck blinks before he remembers. Right. The man had died.
The mountain doesn’t like to return what it takes.
At the reminder, Donghyuck gasps. He maneuvers himself more upright so that he isn’t leaning on his hands anymore, ignoring his throbbing headache. Faintly, he can hear Mark telling him to calm down, but he can’t. He has to make sure that it’s real. That it happened.
He digs his hand into the pocket of his coat and holds back a sob of relief when his hands curl around a soft box.
He hadn’t gone crazy. Renjun was out there, in the mountains, and he’d recognised him. Donghyuck realises that Renjun must’ve brought him back here while he was unconscious, somehow. There’s no other way he could’ve made it all the way back. The thought flooded him with warmth.
No matter what had happened to Renjun, or how he’d changed, he still cared about Donghyuck. And, well, it’s not like Donghyuck ever stopped caring for him.
His gaze lands on the cottage again. Donghyuck isn’t naive. Renjun’s made it abundantly clear that he doesn’t want Donghyuck there. That’s fine, he’ll respect that. Instead of pushing, Donghyuck will wait for as long as he has to.
After all, Renjun will know where to find him.
The knock on his door comes on the first day of spring.
To say Donghyuck hadn’t been waiting for it would be a blatant lie. In the months he spent here he’s had plenty of time to research and talk to the villagers, and though most of it was nonsense, there were some patterns that frequently reappeared. The change of seasons was one of those, so Donghyuck had marked the coming of spring in his calendar and waited. He’s been nervous all morning, anticipating what is to come while fearing that it never will. After breakfast, he’d sat himself down with a cup of coffee, fingers toying with the ring on his right hand as he waited for it to cool down.
The cool metal has since been heated up by his touch. His mug is empty by the time he hears the knock, and he doesn’t bother putting it away as he runs to the door.
Once he’s standing in front of it, he pauses, trying to calm down his erratic heartbeat. His chest is filled to the brim with so much hope he feels like he’s bursting, and he isn’t sure what he’ll do if the person on the other side of the door isn’t who he’s expecting.
With a last shaky breath, he places his hand on the doorknob and turns. The last thing he sees before he opens the door is the silver ring on his finger, and he smiles.
Then he’s hit by a cold wind, though it has reasonably softened over time. He squints for a moment, eyes adjusting to the outdoor brightness, before they fall upon the figure before him.
White, is the first thing his mind registers.
Where black hair had once framed Renjun’s slim face, it is now replaced by hair as white as snow. As white as the scales of the dragon.
That’s the only thing that’s changed, really, because there’s nothing foreign in the warmth of Renjun’s eyes or the nervous smile on his lips.
“You came back,” Donghyuck breathes, and the smile widens slightly. Overwhelmed by emotions, it is all Donghyuck can do to mirror it.
“I did,” Renjun confirms. And then Donghyuck is unable to hold himself back any longer.
He throws himself forward, nestling into Renjun’s chest as he wraps his arms around him. He can feel the other tense before relaxing into his touch, warm hands coming to rest on Donghyuck’s lower back. It’s hard to believe he’d missed this for so long, an unbearable time without the touch he craved the most, but now it’s back and Donghyuck believes the wait was worth it. He thinks he might be shaking, or maybe it’s Renjun. It doesn’t matter, not really, not when they’re wrapped in each other’s arms again.
Donghyuck buries his head in the crook of Renjun’s neck and feels the latter’s hold on him tighten.
“I could’ve killed you,” he murmurs into Donghyuck’s hair, voice loaded with fear and regret.
“You didn’t,” Donghyuck simply replies, words muffled by the fabric of Renjun’s coat. “You won’t.”
Renjun doesn’t answer, but that’s fine. Donghyuck knows he has plenty of time to convince him of his innocence, no matter what he has done. He’s had months to come to terms with it and he can only hope that eventually, Renjun will learn to forgive himself too.
For now, he lets himself be enveloped by warmth for the first time in years.
“I missed you,” he mumbles. He can feel Renjun planting a soft kiss to the top of his head and his heart easily translates the gesture to words.
The past three winters have been long for them, but Donghyuck doesn’t fear the ones to come. In the end, he’s found Renjun, and he won’t let him be alone again. He’s learned, now, that no season lasts forever. Spring has arrived, bringing hope and new beginnings, and Donghyuck knows that everything will be okay.