Genre: AU/Crack & Fantasy (otherwise known as 'crack-tantasy"')
Rating: PG-13 (this chapter)
Pairing/Focus: Jongkey, side 2min
Word Count: 4,988 (HAHA, IN YOUR FACE, WORD LIMIT)
Summary: Jonghyun saves woodland creatures but gets more than he bargains for when he takes home an injured fox.
Disclaimer: This is very, very AU, so I’m going to ask you to please suspend your disbelief and pretend like Jonghyun wouldn’t get eaten by coyotes if he actually lived in the wilderness.
Submitted for shawol_haven's Challenge 20 visual prompt
The Warden of the West
Jonghyun sighs as he untangles a screaming rabbit from a snare. It’s the third one he’s found trapped that day and the first that’s alive. The creature, however, has no idea that he is in the process of saving its life, so it lets out a string of chilling, piercing cries that make the hairs on his arms and his neck stand on end.
“It’s alright. I’ve got you.” He scoops up the terrified animal, one of his hands splayed against its chest where he can feel its heart thumping so rapidly he’s surprised it doesn’t burst out of its ribcage. At the edge of the clearing, he sets the rabbit down. It bolts into the thicket, disappearing in a flash of brown.
Brushing off his hands, Jonghyun returns to the now empty snare. Working quickly, he dismantles it and stashes it into his pack. He has no doubt it will be far from the last one he finds that day, fairly certain by now that at least three different trappers have been working their way through his sector of the forest.
Winter is fast approaching, and Jonghyun understands the instinct to hoard. However, hunting and trapping season closed a week ago, and he’s not paid to feel sympathetic toward trespassers. He rises, picks up his bow, and continues his patrol.
Jonghyun knows the forest better than most, which means he knows better than to challenge its authority. There are powers beyond the mundane at work here, inexplicable forces that cause compass needles to whirl in senseless circles and the landscape to change without warning or reason. The forest is a vast, sprawling stretch of mystery, and Jonghyun is armed with only his gut as his guide. Like all wardens, though, he trusts that whatever divinity rules the woods will recognize him as an ally and show him the path he needs.
As he walks, the dense underbrush begins to melt away and the scenery shifts into a landmark he recognizes. Two rows of ancient trees grow parallel to each other, their long branches fanning out and knitting themselves so closely together that they form a natural corridor.
The place reminds Jonghyun of the time he walked down the center aisle of a cathedral in the city. Passing through the arched tunnel of trees, he is filled with a similar sense of reverence and awe. Shafts of sunlight spear through the dense canopy, puncturing the shadows with brilliant patches of color.
It’s a beautiful albeit eerie part of the woods. For some reason, animals rarely ever come here. The screeching bird calls he heard only a few minutes ago have evaporated into nothingness and even the incessant drone of insects seems more subdued. It’s as if even the local wildlife don’t dare disrupt the veil of silence that shrouds this part of the woods.
Or so he believes.
Jonghyun stops in his tracks. He hears the sound of rustling leaves and the soft, desperate whine of an animal. He listens again, zeroing in on the source of the noise.
It’s coming from behind one of the trees.
As he approaches, the sound grows increasingly frantic. Jonghyun removes an arrow from his quiver and nocks it as a precaution.
When he rounds the tree, the noise comes to an abrupt stop. At first, his gaze skips over the creature crouched at the base of the tree, mistaking it for a rock. Then, his eyes catch a pair of amber-colored eyes.
It’s a fox—an unusual one at that. It’s a bit on the small side, and unlike the countless red foxes he has seen before, this one is predominantly silver, save for the glossy black of its paws, ears, snout, and tail.
“What the—“ Jonghyun narrows his eyes, not quite sure he believes what he’s seeing
Two bushy black tails, each tipped in white, extend from the fox’s rear. They are longer than a typical fox’s tail, almost comically disproportionate with the creature's small body.
When Jonghyun moves in for a closer look, the fox recoils, flattening itself against the ground. He wonders why the fox doesn’t run, but then his eyes fall on the sharp metal teeth clamped around its front left leg.
Jonghyun curses softly as he takes in the fox’s mangled limb. Most foothold traps these days have padded jaws to prevent damage to their victims’ pelts. However, this fox managed to trigger a rather brutal antique. The trap has bitten deeply into the fox’s leg, drawing blood and possibly breaking bone.
He doubts that the animal will be able to recover from the wound. A lame fox, two-tailed or not, would be an easy target for larger predators roaming the woods. Killing it now would be the most merciful thing he could do.
With a resigned sigh, he draws out his dagger.
The moment the fox sees the naked blade, its fur bristles and it begins to snarl, as if it knows death is approaching. However, when Jonghyun takes another step, the little fox lunges forward, snapping its jaws and letting out a series of harsh, explosive barks. Despite its diminutive stature, it makes such a tremendous amount of noise that Jonghyun freezes in midstep. He thinks that if it were human, it would probably be hurling expletives at him.
Not in the mood to get mauled, he sheathes his knife and readies an arrow instead. But as he takes aim and prepares to fire, the fox falls silent. With its ears pulled back against its skull and gums curled upward to bare its teeth, the animal stares at him with an expression that can only be described as disdainful.
The tension of the drawn bow string sings up his arm, begging for release. But there’s something about the fox’s gaze, the direct, challenging way it glares at him--as if it’s more angry than afraid--that causes him to hesitate.
In the forest, a crippled animal is a dead animal. Even if he releases it, the fox will not be able to survive alone.
A soft, insistent voice whispers in the back of his mind.
Maybe it doesn’t have to be alone.
Jonghyun lowers his bow and slips the arrow back into its quiver. He undoes the clasp on his cloak and flings it over the creature, moving quickly while it’s momentarily bewildered be darkness. He gropes through the thick fabric until he clamps a firm hand down on the fox’s jaw. He’s not sure if it can bite through the cloth but he’s not willing to take the risk. Pinned underneath him, the fox thrashes and snarls, its small body practically quivering with outrage.
Carefully, he draws the fabric up enough to examine the fox’s injured leg. The wound is ugly but still pretty fresh. If treated quickly, the fox may be spared a nasty infection.
Jonghyun grimaces as he compresses the springs of the trap and eases the jaws open. Gingerly, he removes the fox’s leg. Judging from the way its paw hangs limply at the end, he’s willing to bet the trap snapped through bone.
The fox whimpers pitifully as it’s freed. Jonghyun takes a minute to wrap his cloak more securely around the creature while keeping one hand locked around the creature’s snout.
“Lucky for you,” he mutters, “I’m a sucker for lost causes.”
Tucking the bundled fox against his chest, he starts the journey home.
The forest seems to sense his urgency and new pathways open underneath his feet. He follows the trails without question and ends up reaching his cabin in record time.
Once indoors, he fetches a long, thin strip of cloth from his collection of medical supplies. It takes a bit of effort and the fox protests loudly, but he manages to loop an improvised muzzle around the creature’s head. When he’s sure the fox is rendered incapable of biting him, he clears his work table and sets the creature down.
The fabric falls away and the fox sits still, disoriented for a moment. Then, it dashes off the table, landing with a sharp cry of pain as its body smacks against the floor. Scrabbling into an upright position and holding its injured paw up, it begins a panicked hobble across the room
Jonghyun groans and berates himself for not having the foresight to have made a leash. He spends the next ten minutes chasing the fox around his cabin. It’s surprisingly agile for an injured, three-legged animal, and, in a maneuver that can only be called as vindictive, jumps on his bed and pees all over his covers.
Eventually though, the fox tires out and Jonghyun manages to catch it and suppress it long enough to leash it to one of the legs of his wardrobe. However, it still takes all of his concentration and willpower to hold the squirming fox still enough to begin treating its wound.
“You,” Jonghyun says through gritted teeth as he cleans the deep gash on the fox’s leg, “are turning out to be much more trouble than you’re worth.”
The fox snarls sullenly in response.
After Jonghyun finishes setting and bandaging the fox’s leg, he makes a small shelter for the animal by stuffing a collection of old towels and rags into an empty crate. The fox spends a few moments hesitantly sniffing the structure before scurrying inside, burrowing until only the white tips of its tails are visible. It remains quiet and hidden as Jonghyun washes his soiled bedding and cooks dinner. Before he goes to sleep, he sets a dish of water and a few pieces of smoked meat next to the crate.
“Goodnight, asshole,” he huffs, casting one last look in the fox’s direction as he slips into bed. Since his blanket is still wet from being cleaned, he pulls his cloak over himself and settles in for the night.
In the morning, he finds the fox still buried deep within its nest but the food left outside the crate is gone.
Jonghyun soon begins having serious second thoughts about letting the little fox into his home. Even with one leg incapacitated, the fox proves to be the single most destructive, infuriating, and fickle animal that he has ever encountered.
Within the first week, it manages to escape its bindings twice, both times while Jonghyun is out patrolling. The first time, he comes home and finds feathers strewn all over his cabin and the fox sitting smugly on top of the tattered remains of his pillows. The second time, the fox sneaks into his pantry and devours not only all his eggs and an entire sack of apples, it also somehow manages to open a jar of honey that he had been saving for a special occasion. Jonghyun spends a full minute raging at the fox, calling it every foul name he knows while it regards him coolly with its amber eyes and runs its tongue over its sticky snout. When he's finished with his rant, it flops onto its side, its ludicrously long tails flicking back and forth as it proudly shows off its bloated belly.
“Do you hate me or are you just obnoxious?” Jonghyun snaps, surveying the wreckage. The fox seems to have torn open a bag of flour for the express purposes of rolling around in the contents and giving Jonghyun an aneurysm.
Over the course of the new few weeks, the fox continues to frustrate Jonghyun’s attempts to restrain it and keep it from tearing up and devouring the contents of his home. One night, in a fit of spite, he traps the fox underneath its crate and loads the heaviest chest he owns on top. The next morning, he wakes up to find the fox curled up beside him in bed. How it managed to liberate itself, he has no idea. He decides just to be thankful that it didn’t chew his face off in the middle of the night.
The little fox lies in Jonghyun’s bed as if it has always belonged there, managing to look both stupendously bored and effortlessly regal. In the early light of the morning, its fur has almost a bluish cast.
Because he’s half-asleep and his higher mental faculties have yet to kick in, Jonghyun can’t help but reach out a hand. He strokes the fox from its sleek head to the base of its twin tails, and to his infinite surprise, the fox closes its eyes and makes a trilling, contented sound, clearly enjoying the attention.
“You really are beautiful,” he mumbles into his pillow as he runs his fingers through the fox’s lush, silky fur. “It’d be nice though if you weren’t so batshit most of the time.”
As if it can understand his words, the fox whips its head around and sinks its neat little fangs into Jonghyun’s hand. He yells and shoves the creature off his bed. It falls to the floor in a heap of indignant, screeching fur.
It continues like that for weeks. Just when Jonghyun thinks he and the fox have reached an amicable détente, the creature does a one-eighty and either attacks him or destroys something in his house. It’s as if the creature is sending him routine reminders that despite the fact that it’s letting Jonghyun feed it and shelter it and occasionally relents to being petted, it is still by no means his pet.
Jonghyun had thought the fox would be lame for life, but to his amazement, pleasure, and later dismay, the fox’s leg actually heals. Each time he unwraps its bandages, he’s surprised to see how much the wound has mended. The rate at which the fox recovers is nothing short of miraculous. Within three weeks, the fox is starting to put weight back on the injured leg. Soon it begins loping around his cabin in an uneven, but still graceful trot.
As much as he’s glad to see the animal healthy and whole, the fox’s increased mobility, though, is not without its downsides.
One day, some of the fish stored in his icebox disappears, and he spends a full hour searching his cabin and swearing at the fox—“I know it was you, you motherfucker!”—until his nose leads him to his wardrobe. He pulls open a drawer to find a fat trout decaying on top of his freshly laundered clothes.
“Okay,” he says, pinching the bridge of his nose, feeling the beginnings of a tremendous migraine, “you’re just fucking with me now, aren’t you?”
The expression on the fox’s face is frighteningly similar to a grin.
The fox’s random acts of mischief and frequent mood swings come to a sudden end one rainy day towards the end of autumn.
When Jonghyun arrives home, the fox practically prances up to him, tails swishing excitedly as he stomps the mud from his boots and hangs up his cloak. It trails behind him as he sets down a bag of groceries on the floor and strips off his wet clothes. He changes into a dry pair of pants but doesn’t bother with a shirt. The fox heads over to the small kitchen area, expecting him to start making supper like usual, but instead, he collapses onto his bed, wrapping his blanket tightly around him.
A few seconds later, he feels something jump onto the end of the bed. The fox makes its way to his head, and sniffs him inquisitively, wet nose poking him in the temple.
“Stop it,” he says, but his voice lacks its usual vitriol. He bats briefly at the fox and rolls away.
The fox refuses to be deterred. It leaps lightly to the other side, settling into the space between Jonghyun and the wall. Nuzzling his hand, it lets out a pitiful, pestering whine.
Because he is weak and doesn’t have the will to protest, Jonghyun relents and pets its head. He strokes the fox, expecting at any minute for it to tire of his touch and savage him. To his surprise, it crawls closer, rubbing itself against his chest.
“You’re nice today,” he mutters, scratching underneath its chin. The fox lifts its head, eyes closing, the very picture of contentment.
When Jonghyun stops and rolls onto his back, the fox jumps up onto his chest. It licks his face once, twice. Even though he mutters, “attention whore,” under his breath, Jonghyun resumes stroking the animal’s fur.
They stay like that for a few minutes, the fox a soothing, pleasant ball of warmth right above his heart. He doesn’t even mind the way its fur sticks slightly to his still damp skin.
“I saw my sister today,” Jonghyun says distantly.
The fox’s ears twitch forward.
He continues, “She just had her second baby.”
The fox flicks its tails.
“She seems really happy.” The words come slowly, squeezed out of him by an ache that reaches beyond his exhausted body. “Her husband is a great guy.”
The fox tilts its head, its eyes locked on him.
“It would be nice,” he admits, quietly to himself, “to have someone too.”
The fox stills. Jonghyun hands continue moving absently, smoothing down its fine, silver fur.
He nearly jumps out of his skin when the fox suddenly lets out a loud, annoyed bark. It darts forward and starts licking Jonghyun all over his the face, small sloppy gestures of affection that leave him spluttering and laughing.
“Yeah, well,” he says, smiling ruefully and hugging the fox tightly. “I guess I do have you.”
After that night, the fox’s personality changes so drastically that Jonghyun actually wonders if someone has performed an exorcism on the animal while he wasn’t looking.
He’s no longer bitten, his home is no longer ravaged, and the fox no longer touches any food besides what Jonghyun gives it. Every time he comes home, he sees the little fox waiting for him in the window, and when he steps inside, everything is exactly as he left it, except now the fox greets him with enthusiastic yips and licks.
Before, the fox seemed to merely tolerate his touch. Now it begs to be petted and held, and Jonghyun has to practically lavish it with affection to keep it satisfied. Every night, the fox jumps up onto his bed, and every morning, he finds it curled up on his chest, wrapped up in its own tails.
A secret, embarrassed part of Jonghyun wonders if he’s so pathetic that even woodland creatures have taken pity on him. On the other hand, he’s just thankful he’s no longer wakes up to shredded underwear littering his floor.
Eventually though, Jonghyun deems the little fox fit enough to be reintroduced into the wild. With a heavy heart, he brings it back to the forest, which by now is carpeted in white. Excited, the fox leaps from his arms and immediately begins romping around delightedly in the snow.
Jonghyun smiles, watching the fox play for a few minutes and ignoring the tight clench of sadness in his chest. Shoving his hands in his pockets, he turns and resolutely marches away, reminding himself that the fox was never really his and that wild animals were much better off in the wild.
Thirty minutes later, he’s nearly mowed down by a deer.
It comes out of nowhere and Jonghyun barely manages to throw himself out of its way when it charges through the trees. What’s even more surprising is that after the deer misses, it doubles back and runs back towards him, as if intent on murder.
Jonghyun, like a true champion, ends up scrambling up a tree.
“What the fuck did I ever do to you?” Jonghyun shouts, because even though he has been treed by an insane deer, he reserves the right to be angry.
Below him, the deer paws impatiently at the ground. It’s a young stag, and though its antlers aren’t exactly impressive in size, Jonghyun does not want to find out how they would feel speared through his ribs.
He is in the middle of hatching an escape plan, when his fox appears out of the blue, snarling and barking angrily. Fear grips him and he shouts for it to flee, lest it gets trampled.
Then, something truly strange happens.
Upon seeing the fox, the deer leaves Jonghyun’s tree and approaches the other creature. However, instead of attacking, the deer bends down and sniffs the fox. They touch noses, exchanging some kind of silent affirmation. Then, the stag rears its elegant head, glances once in Jonghyun’s direction, snorts, and glides back into the woods.
When Jonghyun is certain it’s gone, he slides back down the tree. His fox bounds up to him and he scoops it, cradling it in his arms.
“You’re staying with me from now on,” he says, clutching it protectively. “There's way too much crazy out here.”
The fox doesn’t protest as he carries it home.
Jonghyun names the fox Key. Actually, the fox sort of names itself. One day, Jonghyun remarks in passing that if they’re going to be living together indefinitely, he needs a name to refer to it as besides, “Hey, fox.”
The creature stares at him intently for a moment, and then rushes off. Five minutes later, it drops a set of keys into his lap.
“Oh,” Jonghyun says, rising, “you want to go outside?”
The fox groans and flops onto its back as if to express that Jonghyun’s stupidity is killing it.
The next morning, he wakes up to find that the fox has stolen every single key that he owns and stashed them in its crate.
He takes it as a sign and the fox becomes known as Key.
Key lives with him in his cabin and occasionally goes with him on his patrols. Jonghyun finds the fox to be rather excellent company and spends an embarrassing amount of time talking to it, giving it information that he probably wouldn’t divulge under threat of torture.
He tells the fox about when he was ten and how he and his family had a raised a litter of orphaned kittens after their mother had been badly mauled by a dog. There had been a lot of disgraceful crying on his part when they had given the young cats away to some ecstatic children in the nearby village, and his older sister had fulfilled her role as a sibling by mocking him endlessly.
He tells the fox that the kittens were an exception though because his father had strongly believed that wild animals belonged in the wild and expressed no desire to bring his work home with him.
Jonghyun tells the fox that when he was thirteen, he and his father stumbled upon a tiny fawn, trembling and alone in the forest. It was an obvious orphan, scrawny, mangy, and practically crawling with ticks. Jonghyun had begged his father to help it and his father had complied by seizing the creature and slitting its throat in one swift, smooth motion.
“It was its time,” his father had said with a sigh as he cleaned his knife. “You’ll understand when you’re warden.”
Jonghyun tells the fox that he had stared down at the fawn’s small body crumpled on the forest floor and decided then and there that he never wanted to be warden.
He tells the fox about being sixteen and his father's fury when he ran off to the city to become a musician. He spent two years in the capital eking out a living as a performer, and how despite all the horrible conditions he had to endure, it was exhilarating. He had never felt more hungry or more alive.
He tells the fox about how his stint at teenage rebellion came crashing down on him the day he received the news that his father had died. He came home to find his mother crying and hugging his father’s wardens cloak, a garment she had mended so many times that there wasn’t a single inch that hadn’t passed beneath her fingers.
Jonghyun tells the fox that his father wasn’t even buried when a messenger from the capital came knocking at their door.
He, his sister, and his mother had sat around the table and listened somberly as the envoy spewed some official bullshit about the rights of inheritance and how since their father hadn’t named his successor, they would essentially be cast out of their home when the new warden and his family came.
“That is unless one of the previous warden’s direct descendants volunteers to take over his role,” the official had said, gazing at Jonghyun expectantly.
What had followed was possibly one of the longest silences Jonghyun has ever endured.
However, when he didn’t reply, the official’s gaze had slid over to his sister—his sister who was getting married in the spring and whose dream was to open a bakery and who had fantasized with him when they were little about a life out and away from the forest.
Jonghyun had stepped forward.
The official had beamed at him. “Excellent, excellent. We like to keep these things within the proper bloodlines, you know.” He gave a high, grating chuckle. “You wouldn’t believe how much paperwork this saves me.”
Jonghyun tells the fox how he had wanted to scream.
His first day on patrol, his mother had kissed him on the forehead and pinned his shining, polished warden’s badge onto his cloak with a smile that had eased the knot of pain in his chest and made him believe he was doing the right thing.
Three months later, when his mother fell ill and grew weaker and weaker in front of his eyes, he was no longer sure.
When she died, he and his sister took her body into the woods and buried her underneath a giant, gnarled willow tree that looked as old as time. Jonghyun has never been able to find the place since then, and he takes it as a sign from the forest that he’s not meant to.
He tells the fox that after his mother’s death and his sister’s departure, there was a time when he looked at the forest and wondered, wondered what would happen if he just burnt the entire thing down to the ground.
He tells the fox that he was stewing in these thoughts one day when he encountered a beaver working on repairing a leak in its dam. It was not the first beaver he had seen in the woods, but something about this particular animal, the way it strutted about--completely oblivious to Jonghyun’s inner turmoil and agony--that enraged him. Shouting, he had hurled rocks and curses at the animal, but the beaver had just carried on, completely nonplussed.
There was something about the single-minded innocent industriousness of the animal, the way it so clearly did not give a shit about Jonghyun’s problems, that broke through the wall of self-hatred that Jonghyun had built around himself. As his anger and his grief came rushing out of him, he collapsed onto the riverbank.
When he was done crying, he felt hollowed out and raw, but strangely better. He watched the beaver concentrate on gnawing down a particularly stubborn sapling.
“Thank you,” he said, feeling a bit sheepish.
The beaver had continued to ignore him.
“You know,” Jonghyun says one day as he’s setting down Key’s dinner, “I usually get sick at least once every winter. It’s almost spring.” He brightens. “I guess that means I got lucky this year.”
Of course, because Jonghyun’s life is tragic, two days after he utters these fateful words he is struck down by the flu.
He ends up confined to bed for three days, getting up only to relieve himself and eat some of the increasingly stale food littered around his cabin. It’s one of those occasions when he is supremely thankful that he lives alone because no one, not even his mother, deserves to see the wreck that he has become.
“Is that mold or cheese?” he asks no one in particular, squinting at something on a piece of bread that has been sitting out for far too long. In the end, since he is already clearly dying, he eats it anyway.
At his feet, Key makes a low noise of disapproval.
“Stop judging,” he says around a full mouth.
Jonghyun is delirious with fever, so clearly the voices he’s hearing are products of his overheated brain.
“Look at him. What am I supposed to do? Just leave him like this?”
“You can’t stay here forever. You’re not his pet.”
The voices have a strange quality to them, like they’re nearby, and at the same time, ringing distantly somewhere in the far reaches of his mind. One of them sounds oddly familiar and somehow comforting, as if Jonghyun has heard it somewhere before.
“Of course not! But you’re one to preach. What about that boy in the village? The baker’s son? Taemoon. Taemyun. What’s-his-face.”
“What about him?”
“Denial really doesn’t suit you, Minho.”
“That’s not the point. Kibum, please. I’m sure he’s wonderful for a human but you can’t stay.”
“I have to stay! He needs me. The other day, he ate nothing but raw onions and half a stick of butter! I’m surprised he’s still alive. And—”
“And—and he’s lonely.”
“He’s not meant for you. You are what you are and you can’t change that.”
“Maybe—maybe I can.”
“The next full moon is in two weeks right? I can ask her for help then.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“She likes me. I know she’ll do it.”
“This is crazy.”
“Maybe. But I have to try.”
Jonghyun groans and rolls over. He feels the soft brush of fur as something small and warm snakes under his arm and nestles against him.
“Don’t worry,” he hears a voice say, gentle but firm. “I’m here.”
Author's Note: First of all, sorry for all of you waiting for an EoA update. This story just totally blind-sided me and I spent an entire night alternating between writing this and shouting, "Jesus Christ, what has become of my life?"
On a side note, yes, rabbits do scream when they think they're in mortal danger. A number of terrifying YouTube videos have been very educational in this matter.