Seonghwa doesn’t remember much of his life before Hongjoong. Only that he got along well with all the other kittens and puppies and various hybrids in the shelter, even if he wasn’t particularly close with any of them, and that he particularly loved the curry stew Joonmyun would make every Friday evening for all the children. They were a big, happy family with new members coming in all the time, and Seonghwa hadn’t needed very much to be happy as long as he had enough tuna and some soft, fuzzy blankets to curl up in.
☽ ☽ ☽
There is one memory, though, that remains vivid.
Joonmyun never tells him about the superstition before the incident, because there is really no ideal way to tell a young, black kitten that they may be considered bad luck by people who like to hold onto old misconceptions. Seonghwa ends up finding that out the hard way.
“You don’t want to get rid of the black kitten?” a strange woman asks Joonmyun. Seonghwa thought she might be here to look for kittens to adopt, but she doesn’t seem very nice. She’s standing in the doorway seven feet away from Seonghwa, in red high heels that look sharp and scary, and Seonghwa pretends not to listen even as his ears rotate towards her.
“His name’s Seonghwa,” Joonmyun says politely, but firmly. “And I would never do that. Seonghwa is very precious.”
“Black cats only bring bad luck,” she says, and the fur on the back of Seonghwa’s neck starts to bristle. “Perhaps that’s why your shelter has such low adoption rates.”
“Our shelter focuses on the emotional stability of the hybrid children,” Joonmyun says loudly, in defense of Seonghwa. “We don’t push for high adoption rates because those don’t reflect actual statistics on how many end up in safe forever homes.”
Seonghwa bursts into tears after the strange woman leaves, and Joonmyun picks Seonghwa up to comfort him. “I’m sorry you had to hear that, Seonghwa.”
“Why am I bad luck?”
“It’s an old myth that black cats are bad luck,” Joonmyun says, wiping Seonghwa’s tears away with his thumb. “It has nothing to do with you, baby.”
“But I’m a black cat,” Seonghwa says, stuttering over the words in his tear filled anguish.
“A bright, beautiful black cat who has only ever brought me joy and zero bad luck,” Joonmyun says, and that makes Seonghwa pause mid-sob to stare up at the older man.
“Yes,” Joonmyun says. “The people who truly matter will think you’re the biggest blessing to have ever dropped on them, because you’re a sweet, loving kitten who deeply cares about those around you.”
Seonghwa loves Joonmyun because he rescued Seonghwa out of a cardboard box in the pouring rain when Seonghwa was small and helpless and squeaked more than he meowed, but he thinks he loves Joonmyun even more now. Joonmyun is the kindest person in the whole world by choosing to keep Seonghwa despite what other people might say about them, and Seonghwa tells him as much.
“I wasn’t always kind,” Joonmyun admits. He pets the top of Seonghwa’s hand with two fingers, because any more fingers would smush Seonghwa’s little ears. “With myself or with others. But rescuing kittens like you has helped me grow so much, and because of you I’ve learned what it means to truly be kind from the inside out.”
“So I helped you, too?” Seonghwa asks, cheeks nearly dry.
“Yes. I wouldn’t be who I am today without you,” Joonmyun says.
“I think your heart was good to begin with, Joonmyun hyung,” Seonghwa says, later, when Joonmyun places a mug of hot milk in front of him.
“Thank you, Seonghwa,” Joonmyun says. “Drink your milk quickly.”
Seonghwa feels so warm inside, strange woman and her mean words long forgotten in the face of Joonmyun’s reassurances and the steam rising from his favorite drink.
☽ ☽ ☽
Seonghwa is seven years old when he meets Hongjoong for the first time.
The arrival of a new hybrid goes unnoticed by the other children, but Seonghwa’s got eyes like a hawk’s, and as soon as he sees the new boy from where he’s sitting by the window, he gets off of the couch and meets Joonmyun and the new boy at the front entrance of the shelter.
When he gets close enough, he sees pointed cat ears. The new boy’s a kitten, just like him. Seonghwa loves kittens.
“Seonghwa,” Joonmyun chastises. “You’re not wearing enough layers to be outside.”
Seonghwa pays no heed to that because he’s got more important matters to inquire about, and instead asks eagerly, “Who is this?”
“Hongjoong,” Joonmyun says, giving up on further nagging when it becomes obvious Seonghwa isn’t going to listen to him. “We think he’s your age, Seonghwa.”
At this piece of information, Seonghwa’s ears perk right up. There are no other hybrids in the shelter his age, and the last one had been an overly dramatic hamster with a tendency to stir up trouble for anyone who played with her. She’d gotten adopted by a couple who looked kind, though, so maybe she was doing something right.
“Really?” Seonghwa asks.
“Yes,” Joonmyun says, laughing when Seonghwa’s tail vibrates in excitement and he immediately tries to get close to Hongjoong, who only shrinks back as he stares at Seonghwa in apprehension with large and solemn eyes that are set wide apart. He doesn’t look particularly pleased or displeased to be here, but Seonghwa hopes that will change for the better once Hongjoong stays here a while longer.
Hongjoong’s clothes have dirt stains, and his hair looks tangled. Seonghwa fidgets as he considers whether it would be okay to start grooming Hongjoong without asking him, because he likes cleaning, and he’s pretty sure he likes Hongjoong, too, because the new kitten boy is so cute.
Joonmyun can probably see and hear the gears turning in Seonghwa’s head, and before a crisis occurs, he nudges the two of them so that they go inside. “Both of you, get inside, so we can introduce Hongjoong to everyone else,” Joonmyun says.
The rest of the children ooh and ahh at the new addition to the shelter family, but Joonmyun has taught them well and everyone remains on their best behavior, making sure not to crowd into Hongjoong’s personal bubble too much and make him even more nervous than he already is.
That is, except for Seonghwa.
“I’m going to tidy Hongjoong up and then you guys can play with him more,” Joonmyun says.
Seonghwa is usually the best behaved out of everyone, but there’s not much common sense going through his tiny mind when he surges forward and licks up the side of Hongjoong’s face in an attempt to groom him.
He’s only gotten to Lick #3 before Hongjoong is hissing at him, sandy brown ears flattened in irritation and hands curled into fists ready to lash out at Seonghwa for daring to touch him.
“Seonghwa!” Joonmyun pulls Seonghwa out of harm’s way before Hongjoong does any real damage, holding in a laugh for both Seonghwa’s and Hongjoong’s sake. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Tidying Hongjoong up!” Seonghwa replies, and Joonmyun just exhales a breathy laugh.
He sounds more amused than angry with Seonghwa’s behavior, and in response, Seonghwa pouts up at Joonmyun with all the cuteness he can muster. “Can’t I help with that?”
“I love when you want to be helpful, Seonghwa, but I think Hongjoong wants to be left alone for now,” Joonmyun says sweetly. “Maybe another day?”
And so, Seonghwa is left to sulk by himself as Joonmyun coaxes Hongjoong into following him upstairs to the bathroom so that he can give the kitten a bath.
“Seonghwa, you misbehaved~” Yeosang says, which rubs salt into a wound that hasn’t healed, and Seonghwa growls back at him in warning to make the younger kitten stop teasing him.
For sure, Hongjoong will come to like Seonghwa, because Seonghwa doesn't think he’ll be able to stand it if Hongjoong doesn't want to be his friend. He’s not too worried, though, even if he’s a black cat, since he’s never met anyone who doesn’t end up liking him.
☽ ☽ ☽
Hongjoong remains silent for nearly two weeks.
Seonghwa prepares to ask Joonmyun about the reason, when Joonmyun has a (rare) free moment to pull Seonghwa up onto his lap and blow dry Seonghwa’s hair for him. Seonghwa’s old enough to be doing that himself, honestly, since the hairdryer isn’t too heavy for him to hold, but he likes dozing off to the sensation of Joonmyun’s gentle hands brushing through his hair.
“Your hair’s dry now, little prince,” Joonmyun says ten minutes later, and Seonghwa rubs at his eyes.
“Thank you, Joonmyun hyung,” Seonghwa says. “Can I ask you something?”
“Yes, of course,” Joonmyun replies.
“Why doesn’t Hongjoong talk?”
“Oh,” Joonmyun says. “You really want to talk to him?”
He’s made a few attempts, all with zero success. Hongjoong doesn’t hiss at him, anymore, because he’s realized Seonghwa is pretty much harmless, but the indifference is starting to feel just as bad as the initial shock of Hongjoong baring his sharp teeth at Seonghwa.
“I need to know what he likes so I can make him happy, but he doesn’t answer any of my questions,” Seonghwa says, fidgeting. Joonmyun will definitely understand the pickle he’s in, because Joonmyun always sees the best in Seonghwa’s intentions.
“That’s very kind of you, Seonghwa. Hongjoong’s probably not used to living with a bunch of noisy, excited children,” Joonmyun says, smiling. “He was on his own for a long time before he got rescued by Sehun’s team at the hybrid humane society, so you’ll have to be patient with him.”
“Is that why his hair was all messy when he first came?” Seonghwa asks, and Joonmyun nods.
“I could have helped clean him,” Seonghwa says, petulantly, still aggrieved by the fact that he wasn’t and still isn’t allowed to groom Hongjoong. Not that Hongjoong needs any grooming now, because his hair is all fluffy and golden and so very soft looking. Seonghwa really wants to give him some pretty braids, but he might end up losing limbs if Hongjoong realizes Seonghwa’s even looking at his hair.
“I have no doubts that you would have done very well, but Hongjoong was a little nervous,” Joonmyun says, barely holding in a laugh. Before Seonghwa can ask him what’s so funny, he continues with, “I have some ideas that might help Hongjoong warm up to you, though.”
Seonghwa’s eyes widen. “Tell me!” he says, then adds, “Please?”
“Hongjoong seems to like building things, and arts and crafts,” Joonmyun says. “He might not respond well to conversation, but you can always draw him pictures to communicate or make him something that he’ll be interested in.”
“You’re so smart, hyung,” Seonghwa says, as he starts shimmying off of Joonmyun’s lap, and Joonmyun holds onto him until Seonghwa’s feet have firmly landed on the floor. “Why did I never think of that?”
“You’re still young,” Joonmyun explains, in what Seonghwa will recall as affection when he’s older, and Joonmyun ruffles Seonghwa’s hair, making sure Seonghwa doesn't need anything else from him before he’s off to taking care of a freshly showered puppy girl.
☽ ☽ ☽
Two days pass before Seonghwa finally, painstakingly manages to get the perfect drawing down. He uses blue crayon for the depiction of himself, and orange crayon for Hongjoong, because the brown and gold crayons (which would be more accurate in capturing the beautiful color of Hongjoong’s ears and hair) have been missing for a while and his mission to secure Hongjoong’s friendship can’t wait any longer. He also adds tuna and salmon on the sides, along with the little stick frame huts that Hongjoong likes to build in the gardens out of twigs and mud, and toy parts scattered across the rest of the page to represent what Seonghwa does when he’s by himself (build toy figurines!).
Seonghwa’s jaw nearly drops to the floor when he offers his crayon masterpiece to Hongjoong, and Hongjoong’s satellite ears twitch in interest before he asks carefully, “For me?”
His voice is just as cute as his big, serious eyes and sandy brown ears, even if it sounds like he’s not used to speaking out loud. That’s what staying silent for weeks does to you, understandably, but Seonghwa’s heart beats like a loud, solid drum at the fact that Hongjoong has finally said something to him.
“Yes, for you,” Seonghwa says, blinking rapidly as he thinks of how to keep Hongjoong talking.
Hongjoong gingerly takes the drawing from him and studies the portrait Seonghwa has done of them. “You’re not that much bigger than me, Seonghwa,” he says.
“You know my name?” Seonghwa lights up, tail swishing in celebration before remembering what Hongjoong had said before his name. It’s just that Hongjoong is so small, and adorable, and Seonghwa really wants to protect him. “Are you mad?”
“Yes, Joonmyun…hyung called you that when you… licked me.” Hongjoong scrunches his nose, like it upsets him to even recall the memory. “I have ears. And no, I’m not mad.”
“I was trying to clean you,” Seonghwa blurts out. Since they’re on speaking terms now, it’s his chance to explain to Hongjoong that he meant well, and wasn’t purposely trying to make Hongjoong angry. “Because you’re pretty when your fur is clean. I wasn’t trying to hurt you.”
“I don’t like being touched,” Hongjoong says.
“Why not?” Seonghwa asks. He likes receiving hugs, head pets, cheek kisses, and bouts of grooming when he can get it, so it’s hard to imagine being in the shoes of someone like Hongjoong, who looks fearful at the mere possibility of physical contact.
Hongjoong scrunches his entire face this time, not just his nose. “I just don’t.”
“Okay,” Seonghwa says, agreeably. “What do you like, then?”
Hongjoong looks taken aback by the question. “Why?”
“So I can give you the things you like,” Seonghwa says. “Why else?”
“Why would you do that?” Hongjoong asks genuinely. “You don’t know me.”
“I do now!” Seonghwa says. Hongjoong is talking so easily for someone who didn’t want to utter a single syllable to Seonghwa for fourteen days, so he must have really liked Seonghwa’s drawing, and that makes Seonghwa’s chest puff up with pride. “And I want to be your friend.”
Hongjoong looks between the drawing in his hands and Seonghwa a few times, the sincerity in Seonghwa’s gift seeming to finally win him over. “Well...I like fish, chicken, warm places, and being alone.”
Seonghwa can give Hongjoong maybe two or three of those things, but he frowns at the last one because it means Hongjoong doesn’t want him around, and when Hongjoong sees the troubled expression on Seonghwa’s face, he adds, “You’re okay. I guess.”
“As long as you don’t try to lick me again,” Hongjoong says, and Seonghwa flashes a toothy grin at him. Well, Seonghwa can certainly try.
☽ ☽ ☽
Much to Seonghwa’s delight and Joonmyun’s astonishment, Seonghwa and Hongjoong quickly become inseparable. Their hours together blur into days into weeks into months, and suddenly Hongjoong has already been at the shelter for a year.
Seonghwa is not sure how much of their ~two peas in a pod~ thing is just him clinging on for dear life and Hongjoong being unbothered about it, but he loves being around Hongjoong and that’s really all that matters to young Seonghwa.
It’s hard to notice at first, since Hongjoong reveals so little about himself verbally, but he’s calm and patient and smart in all the ways Seonghwa wishes he can become one day. Hongjoong listens to Seonghwa chatter away about inane things without ever complaining that Seonghwa talks too much or says useless things, and Seonghwa knows Hongjoong’s always paying close attention from the way Hongjoong’s ears will rotate and twitch in direct proportion to how excited Seonghwa gets.
Yeosang listens to Seonghwa well, too, but his attention span doesn’t stretch as long as Hongjoong’s does, and he has a tendency to sleep in late when Seonghwa is already up and seeking out playmates early in the morning. And although Joonmyun is unrivalled when it comes to giving undivided attention, Seonghwa tries his best to not bother Joonmyun too much because he knows the older man is busy from trying to take care of all the hybrids as well as the adult matters of running a hybrid shelter.
So Seonghwa feels most himself when he’s around Hongjoong, because Hongjoong doesn’t have any expectations for how Seonghwa should behave and puts up with Seonghwa’s antics as long as they don’t break his two simple rules: no unnecessary crowding and no fur licking. Seonghwa doesn’t like those rules because he wants to be as close to Hongjoong as physically possible at all times, but he does his best because he wants Hongjoong to keep smiling at him.
Over time, Hongjoong becomes more forgiving about the first rule. He lets Seonghwa play with his tail every once in a while, finding great amusement in the way Seonghwa’s pupils grow big and black in barely contained excitement at the hypnotizing back and forth of Hongjoong’s fluffy, golden tail. If he’s feeling particularly generous, he’ll let Seonghwa succeed at pouncing on it a few times, then gently scratch under Seonghwa’s chin once Seonghwa starts getting sleepy from all the running around.
When it’s too cold or rainy to be playing outside, Seonghwa will snuggle up to Hongjoong as close as Hongjoong allows him to, and he’ll build and rebuild his toy figurines while Hongjoong sews scraps of fabric together for whatever project he’s designing in his head at the moment.
(Seonghwa had been the one to ask Joonmyun about any unwanted materials or fabrics that Hongjoong could experiment with, and Joonmyun had been kind enough to gift Hongjoong a brand new sewing kit as well as access to the boxes of old clothing they kept in the supply closet.
Hongjoong’s eyes had lit up like the lights on a Christmas tree when he’d received the unexpected gift, the end of his tail stuttering with inexplicable happiness, and Seonghwa’s chest had felt so, so warm.)
☽ ☽ ☽
“What was your before like?” Yeosang asks, once, having chosen to join Seonghwa and Hongjoong in the garden instead of nap inside in the corner of some closet. It’s well into mid-spring now, so Seonghwa doesn’t need to bundle up in a giant parka just to watch Hongjoong build twig huts.
Seonghwa swats at Yeosang for asking something forbidden, because Hongjoong’s before is not something Seonghwa has ever touched upon no matter how curious he is about it.
To Seonghwa’s surprise, however, Hongjoong just offers Yeosang a small, sad smile.
(Seonghwa still remembers that exact smile as an adult, and he wonders how much suffering Hongjoong must have gone through to smile like that at the young age of nine.)
“Not very good,” Hongjoong says. His hands are curled into fists. “I’m grateful for the people who rescued me and also to Joonmyun hyung for letting me live here.”
Although he’s putting on his brave face, he still looks… sad. Seonghwa wants to give him a big, bone crushing hug or maybe the leftover salmon in the fridge Seonghwa wasn’t able to finish during lunch, but he’s not sure if that’s what Hongjoong needs right now, so he just holds onto Hongjoong’s pinky finger to comfort him.
He’s done it before, when Hongjoong whimpers in his sleep because of bad dreams and wakes Seonghwa up in the middle of the night with his quiet sniffles from across the room. Seonghwa will tiptoe across the cold floor and crawl into bed with Hongjoong, holding Hongjoong’s hand until the smaller kitten stops shaking and his breathing evens out into a dull purr. Sometimes Seonghwa forgets to go back to his own bed, and he’ll wake up in the morning with his tail curled around a half awake Hongjoong, who will mumble at Seonghwa to get out before he pushes Seonghwa off the bed himself.
(Seonghwa thinks Hongjoong’s aversion to being touched probably applies more to mean strangers who don’t ask for permission, because Hongjoong is mostly receptive to Seonghwa touching him whenever he’s trying to comfort Hongjoong.)
“Joonmyun hyung is the best,” Yeosang says, and smartly changes the subject. “How do you tie the twigs that are perpendicular to each other?”
“With strong blades of grass,” Hongjoong replies, and he sounds less sad now, so Seonghwa lets go of Hongjoong’s pinky and watches Hongjoong proceed to demonstrate what he means for Yeosang with a new set of twigs and a freshly pulled grass blade.
☽ ☽ ☽
Seonghwa is accustomed to the younger hybrids messing with his toy figurines. He doesn’t have the heart to yell at them when they don’t mean any harm, and it’s his job as one of the oldest children to keep his cool so that Joonmyun doesn’t have to worry about Seonghwa’s emotional outbursts on top of everything else he’s swamped with.
Hongjoong is the same way, never too upset when he goes out the garden and realizes his twig structures have been blown over by bad weather or trampled by careless, younger hybrids.
“That’s so sad,” Seonghwa says the first time he sees the tragic aftermath of Hongjoong’s twig momument’s demise, twigs all fallen and destroyed by an overnight thunderstorm.
“I can just make it again,” Hongjoong says, instead of crying like some of the other hybrids might, and squats down to closer inspect the damage.
That’s why, Seonghwa’s eyes nearly fall out of their sockets when he’s in the kitchen heating up hot milk for everyone, and he happens to hear Hongjoong going out of his way to tell the younger hybrids not to ruin Seonghwa’s figurines.
“Seonghwa works really hard on those, so you shouldn’t touch them too much,” Hongjoong says, and the noisy puppies and kittens fall quiet at his rare scolding. “How do you think he feels after spending all that time building them and you guys break off an arm or a leg?”
“Bad,” Jongho answers meekly.
“And does Seonghwa ever make you guys feel bad by breaking your toys?”
“No,” another hybrid says. Seonghwa thinks the voice belongs to Junho.
“So reflect,” Hongjoong says sternly. “And put that figurine back, Mingi.”
“Yes, sir,” the hybrids chirp in unison without missing a beat, and Seonghwa covers his mouth when he laughs so that Hongjoong doesn’t realize he’s overheard the exchange.
☽ ☽ ☽
Seonghwa’s never doubted that Hongjoong cares about him. Hongjoong only speaks a word for every five from Seonghwa, but his heart is kind, and he always makes sure to save some tuna on his plate for Seonghwa because he knows Seonghwa especially likes it but won’t fight with the younger hybrids for a bigger portion. He scratches Seonghwa’s tummy when he thinks Seonghwa’s asleep, and he lets Seonghwa hug him when Seonghwa’s having an off day.
Sometimes, he still surprises Seonghwa, though. Like today.
Hongjoong comes into the playroom with a giant bundle of blankets in his arms. He’s so small that Seonghwa only sees his legs, and then Hongjoong pops his head out from the side. “Which section of the floor is clean?” he asks Seonghwa.
“Ah, that corner is pretty much all done,” Seonghwa says, pointing while holding the lint roller in his other hand. Hongjoong nods in acknowledgment and drops the blankets down where Seonghwa has indicated. He’s wearing a sweater that’s a few sizes too big for him, but Hongjoong always looks swallowed up by his clothes since he’s so tiny. Seonghwa barely resists the urge to drop everything and nuzzle Hongjoong, because he’s so cute.
“Are you sleeping here?” Seonghwa asks.
Hongjoong shakes his head. “It’s cold, so I picked the best blankets for you,” he says. “You can build your figurines here later.”
Seonghwa blinks at him. “How did you know I was going to do that?”
“You always clean, then build your figurines, like clockwork,” Hongjoong answers. “What a silly question.”
He promptly walks back out of the room, leaving Seonghwa to sweep the floor in a combination of mild confusion and displeasure at his question being deemed silly, but he’s over it by the time Hongjoong returns fifteen minutes later, when Seonghwa is done cleaning and taking apart his toy robot figurine. Hongjoong settles down on a free corner of the blanket pile with a hardcover book that looks too big for his hands to hold, his back facing Seonghwa.
Seonghwa doesn't feel lonely, though, not when Hongjoong is the one who made this blanket pile in the first place specifically for him, and he knows Hongjoong sometimes just wants to be in the same room without necessarily being right next to each other.
Two hours later, Seonghwa wakes up to one of the blankets having been pulled over him to keep him warm. His toy figurine is next to him, half under the blanket, too. Hongjoong has left behind a mug of milk that’s still warm, and Seonghwa knows with certainty that Hongjoong is the one who brought it because it’s the mug with the dancing bears in scarves and winter hats, which is Hongjoong’s favorite.
“Thank you,” he says to Hongjoong when he finds him in the garden, still reading the big hardcover book.
Hongjoong pretends not to know what Seonghwa is talking about. “For what?” he asks, and scrunches his nose in fake distaste when Seonghwa drags his tail across Hongjoong’s sweater affectionately and leaves behind a bunch of black hairs on the wool.
☽ ☽ ☽
Birthdays aren’t that important to Seonghwa.
Maybe that’s the privilege of being raised by Joonmyun, who never forgets any of the hybrids’ birthdays no matter how busy he is and always buys a birthday cake for whichever hybrid is turning one year older that day. Seonghwa is used to getting frosting smeared across his nose and cheeks by the other kids, then a big smooch on the forehead from Joonmyun after everyone’s done singing happy birthday to him, but his special day of the year is just one among many days where he feels loved and appreciated.
As for Hongjoong, they don’t know his real birthday, so they celebrate it on the day Joonmyun brought him home, on the 7th of November.
Correction: birthdays aren’t that important to Seonghwa until they celebrate Hongjoong’s birthday for the first time. Hongjoong isn’t the sort of cat who basks in attention, preferring to shy away from it if possible, and he doesn’t seem like the type of cat who would want a big birthday celebration designated for him.
But when Joonmyun brings home a cake with Hongjoong’s name written on it in rainbow sprinkles, Hongjoong’s face lights up with enough power to brighten an entire city and Seonghwa discovers the Eighth Wonder of the world (even if he doesn’t know what the first seven are). He watches in awe as Hongjoong’s eyes grow as big as saucers, sparkling more than Seonghwa has ever seen them sparkle as a cacophonous and lawless rendition of the happy birthday song starts.
Hongjoong is less surprised in the following years after that, but the sparkle in his eyes is always as bright as the first time, and Seonghwa thinks it’s not so much the idea of celebration that makes Hongjoong happy as it is the realization that he’s valuable enough to receive simple but big gestures of love like this. Seonghwa is lucky enough to have a photograph of Hongjoong on his eleventh birthday that Joonmyun takes and develops just for him, which Seonghwa keeps under his pillow for eternal good luck.
☽ ☽ ☽
On the morning of Seonghwa’s twelfth birthday, Hongjoong sits on Seonghwa’s blanket covered legs and hands him a folded piece of paper without saying anything.
“Hongjoong?” Seonghwa blinks up at him in sleep affected confusion, before looking back down at the mysterious paper. “What is this?”
“Read it with your eyeballs, dummy,” Hongjoong says.
(Hongjoong is beginning to talk significantly more these days. Seonghwa is still not sure if he’s happy about this, because most of Hongjoong’s spoken word count is just him bullying Seonghwa.)
Hongjoong has no business being so mean this early in the day, but Seonghwa unfolds the paper regardless, and instantly beams when he sees what Hongjoong’s written in blue Sharpie.
<<Coupon for Park Seonghwa to Groom Kim Hongjoong
Good for: 3 uses, must wait at least 1 week between each use for Hongjoong’s sanity>>
He rubs his eyes to make sure what he’s reading is real. “You mean it, Hongjoong?”
“Yeah,” Hongjoong says. “Joonmyun hyung suggested it, because apparently you’re still salty that you didn’t get to groom me that first day I came.”
“Are you going to hiss at me again?” Seonghwa asks, but he’s already filled to the tip-toppy brim with excitement, and Hongjoong isn’t allowed to take this present back no matter how much he regrets it.
“Probably not,” Hongjoong says, yelping in surprise when Seonghwa sits up and suddenly tackles him out of gratitude.
“This is the best birthday present ever,” Seonghwa says, cheek mashed against the top of Hongjoong’s head, smushing Hongjoong’s soft ears.
“You’re so weird,” Hongjoong says, voice muffled in Seonghwa’s neck, but he doesn’t make any move to struggle or escape.
“Am not,” Seonghwa says, releasing Hongjoong from his bear hug so that they can see each other face to face. “It’s taken five years for you to let me groom you! Yeosang let me groom him within two weeks of us meeting!”
“Grooming isn’t that fun for either party,” Hongjoong says with a grimace, like the prospect of being cat-cleaned by Seonghwa leaves a bad taste in his mouth. “And if Yeosang is so agreeable, why don’t you just continue grooming him?”
“But you’re the one I want to clean and groom the most!” Seonghwa says, tail fluttering. “My favorite victim, my favorite angry kitten.”
He expects Hongjoong to say something snarky back. Hongjoong’s smart and always has a clever retort up his sleeve to bully Seonghwa into compliance, but this time, Hongjoong just turns bright red and says, “Whatever.”
☽ ☽ ☽
Seonghwa’s updated list of favorite things to do (in order of how much he likes them) includes: grooming Hongjoong, clinging to Hongjoong, cleaning, building toy figurines, and eating tuna.
☽ ☽ ☽
When they’re thirteen, Seonghwa learns that Hongjoong doesn’t believe in forever.
“If we’re still together, maybe,” or “if I’m still here,” are his default replies to any of Seonghwa’s speculations about what the distant future holds for them.
Hongjoong’s before only takes up half of his life, now, but it might be that Seonghwa sees the glass half full and Hongjoong sees it half empty. Over six years of unconditional love from Joonmyun (and Seonghwa!!!) should have made Hongjoong stop feeling uneasy a long time ago, but maybe it’s still not enough for Hongjoong to feel like he’s part of the family, to accept that the shelter is his forever home and not just a temporary transition to somewhere still undetermined.
“It doesn’t matter what happens, I’m always going to be next to you every step of the way!” Seonghwa says.
“What about that time you had to go to the doctor and stayed in the hospital for a whole day because of the fish bones you ingested?” Hongjoong points out, because he’s mean and likes to poke holes in all of Seonghwa’s grand statements. He says this without so much as pausing his sewing in his current reformation project, his fingers so agile that the orange thread seems to weave itself through the edges of the plaid patch he’s adding to his shirt.
Seonghwa would shove Hongjoong, but Hongjoong has a needle in his hand and Seonghwa doesn't want him to get hurt.
“You can live one day without me!” Seonghwa says, settling for a pout and crossed arms. “It was an unexpected emergency! Don’t be negative, Hongjoong.”
When he stops talking, he realizes the corner of Hongjoong’s mouth is pulled upwards. Hongjoong was messing with him! “I’m just bullying you a little,” Hongjoong says.
“Yeosang does that enough, thank you,” Seonghwa says. “You don’t get to be mean to me. I’m supposed to be your favorite.” He’s not sure whether that’s actually true to how Hongjoong thinks of him, but he hopes that if he says it enough times, it’ll eventually become the truth.
“It builds character,” Hongjoong says, laughing, and attempts to appease Seonghwa with, “Yes, yes. You’re my favorite, prince Seonghwa.”
“Don’t call me a prince,” Seonghwa says. “You’re being sarcastic.”
“Your hair’s all puffed up,” Hongjoong says, reaching out to smooth down the physical manifestation of Seonghwa’s wrath. Seonghwa flattens his ears so that Hongjoong can pet him on the head without running into any obstacles and pretends to be mad up until Hongjoong scratches his favorite spot behind his ears.
“We’re always going to be together, Hongjoong,” Seonghwa says resolutely. The back of his eyes burn when he considers the possibility of separating from his one and only best friend, but he’s definitely not going to let that happen. “Okay?”
“Okay,” Hongjoong says, but the look of uncertainty in his eyes says he’s not so sure. Seonghwa doesn’t know how to make Hongjoong believe him at this moment, so he just closes his eyes and promises to make sure Hongjoong’s fears never come true.
☽ ☽ ☽
For Seonghwa, cooking starts off as more of an accidental hobby than an intentional endeavor. He takes on more and more of the kitchen duties as he approaches his fourteenth birthday because Joonmyun is forever swamped with responsibilities and new baby hybrids to take care of, and surely, Seonghwa can do this one simple thing for him.
He’s watched Joonmyun enough to know the basics, and it helps that Joonmyun writes down the hybrids’ favorite recipes in a little red notebook, handwriting just as neat and polite as the rest of him. Soon Seonghwa begins to experiment with new twists and tweaks on recipes for the children with dietary restrictions, as well as for the ones with picky taste.
“You don’t have to cook so much,” Joonmyun says, often, but Seonghwa likes cooking because it calms him, and he sees the way Joonmyun’s shoulders relax when he comes home from meetings and rescue missions and there’s already food waiting for him on the table.
Hongjoong frequents the kitchen more now that Seonghwa’s there so much, and he’ll steal pieces of chicken that Seonghwa has approved as fully cooked and safe to eat, cackling when Seonghwa nags at him to leave some for the rest of the hybrids.
Seonghwa really loves Hongjoong’s laugh. It comes out in moments when he’s least expecting it, because Hongjoong shows his amusement more easily than before, these days, and it’s just as cute as his speaking voice and his sandy brown ears and his big fluffy tail. When he’s being mischievous, he looks more hyena than cat, wide-set eyes curling up into crescents that have Seonghwa’s heart squeezing in on itself.
Seonghwa tells himself his heart only feels like that because Hongjoong is just a beautiful cat, and Seonghwa loves being his best friend. That’s all.
☽ ☽ ☽
The trouble starts when Seonghwa is fifteen years old, and Hongjoong is fourteen and a half.
Hongjoong is no longer the cat who hisses at strangers vying for his affection or the cat who only answers to Seonghwa’s patient requests for information. He’s grown out into his features, sporting a messy mullet and his various fashion projects in colorful outfits that draw people’s interest even on the streets.
He branches out faster than Seonghwa would like him to, attending music and art classes at an academy nearby with Joonmyun’s permission, and he starts to make friends that aren’t Seonghwa.
Growing up is something Seonghwa has always looked forward to until he realizes it’s actually happening, and that Joonmyun’s gentle reminders about “growing pains” when Seonghwa became a teenager are far too true for comfort. Seonghwa’s joints hurt because he’s experiencing a growth spurt, but the real growing pain is feeling like the ground is slipping out from underneath him as the rules and expectations of his friendship with Hongjoong start to change. He’s always been afraid that he couldn’t give Hongjoong forever, but he’s never prepared himself for Hongjoong to be the one to give Seonghwa up first, to leave Seonghwa out of his own volition.
Two months into Hongjoong’s classes, they have their first real (small) fight about it. Hongjoong doesn’t think it’s an issue, but Seonghwa is so frustrated that he almost sees red despite almost never losing his temper, because Hongjoong has always understood Seonghwa’s side of things up until now, when it matters the most.
“What’s wrong with us spending less time together?” Hongjoong asks.
“I miss you,” Seonghwa says. “And it feels like we’re not friends anymore.”
“You say that like I moved out or something,” Hongjoong says. “We still share a room, and I hang out with you in the evenings, don’t I?”
“That’s not enough,” Seonghwa says, despite knowing how childish he’ll sound, despite knowing that he’s fighting a losing battle. Hongjoong is stubborn when it comes to the things he really wants, and Seonghwa whining isn’t going to change the outcome of Hongjoong’s pursuits. “It’s not fair, and I don’t want you to spend all that time with other people who aren’t me.”
Hongjoong looks impatient, which has never happened before. He gets impatient with other people, but never Seonghwa, and Seonghwa wraps his tail around himself sadly.
“I’m sorry if this is hard for you, but for the last nine years, my existence has always been linked with you,” Hongjoong says. “I’ve never had a chance to exist by myself.”
The words sting, because they imply that Seonghwa is clingy, and unwanted, and… he would be fine with that if it were anyone else, but Hongjoong is Seonghwa’s cat, and he’s supposed to need Seonghwa just as much as Seonghwa needs him.
“What does that mean?” Seonghwa asks. It’s not like he kept Hongjoong chained to him by force. Hongjoong could have refused to be his friend, if he really wanted to. “That I’m suffocating to be around?”
“No,” Hongjoong says, looking panicked. “Don’t twist my words, Seonghwa.”
“Then say it in a way I can understand,” Seonghwa says, hair puffing up like it always does whenever he’s angry. He doesn’t bother trying to flatten it when it’s just going to puff up again, and he turns so that he’s no longer facing Hongjoong. “I’m not like any of your talented academy friends, so you have to tell me in dummy language.”
“You’re not dumb,” Hongjoong says, irritated, before taking a deep breath and lowering the volume of his voice. “I just… I really like music, and art, and fashion.”
“You can do that at the shelter, too,” Seonghwa says. “You were doing fine by yourself.”
“But I can only do so much by myself,” Hongjoong says. “You know?”
“Yeah,” Seonghwa says quietly. The common sense in him knew that from the beginning, but it was the emotional side of him that had wanted to lash out at Hongjoong for neglecting him, when Seonghwa still needs him so desperately.
“So don’t be upset that I’m taking these classes and spending less time with you,” Hongjoong says. “Please? Any other free time I have, I’ll spend with you.”
Seonghwa crosses his arms over each other. “I’ll think about it,” he says.
“Don’t be like that,” Hongjoong says, petting Seonghwa’s tail until Seonghwa whacks his hand away. “Seonghwa~~~”
“Don’t touch my tail,” Seonghwa says. “I’m still mad at you. Stupid Hongjoong.”
“This stupid Hongjoong is still your best friend,” Hongjoong says, changing tactics and pulling on the material of Seonghwa’s sweatpants. “But it’s been cool to meet people with the same interests as me and learn from them. It doesn’t mean I’m replacing you, at all. Okay?”
“Okay,” Seonghwa says.
“I’m sorry that I upset you,” Hongjoong says, later, when they’re both in their own beds and all tucked in. “Are you asleep, Seonghwa~”
Seonghwa knows that the apology is genuine, but all he can think about is I’ve never had a chance to exist by myself, which makes him wonder about what other hurtful thoughts Hongjoong is possibly keeping from him.
“It’s fine,” Seonghwa says, even though not much is fine. Everything’s a mess, and he doesn’t understand where to go from here because friendship isn’t supposed to hurt like this, like his heart is being ripped out just from Hongjoong attending class a few miles away when none of this is a Big Deal.
For once, Hongjoong is the optimistic one, but to Seonghwa. it feels like the beginning of the end, and he stays awake for hours that night, long after Hongjoong’s breathing has evened out in unconsciousness.
☽ ☽ ☽
When Seonghwa turns sixteen, he becomes the one to stop believing in forever.
☽ ☽ ☽
After all, Seonghwa is a black cat. In his sadder moments, he thinks that maybe the strange woman in the red high heels was right all along, that he only brings bad luck and bad feelings to the people he loves. That would explain why Hongjoong has gone so far away, and why they feel a little like strangers even though they sleep a few feet away from each other every night.
But he tries to remember that Joonmyun loves him, and all the little hybrids love him, too, because many of them pull at the hem of his shirt now (and not Joonmyun’s) so that Seonghwa can carry them in his arms and coo over them until they’re giggling at the attention. Seonghwa might not be first place in Hongjoong’s heart anymore, but he’s #1 to all the hybrids who are still feeling unsure and scared and anxious about their place in the world, the puppies and kittens who light up whenever he makes their favorite snacks and agrees to play games with them, and that’s good enough for him. It has to be.
☽ ☽ ☽
Seonghwa comes home from running errands at the supermarket to find Joonmyun being kissed by Sehun in the kitchen.
The younger hybrids have gone on a field trip organized by the hybrid humane society that they won’t return from until later in the evening, and Hongjoong is away at the academy. With everyone out of the shelter, minus one teenage Seonghwa gone astray, Joonmyun and Sehun must have let their guard down.
The kiss isn’t of a scandalous nature or anything. Seonghwa is old enough to have seen worse things, although it does leave him a little stunned that he’d never noticed their relationship before with how little privacy Joonmyun gets. Joonmyun has always been secretive about his personal life even when he spends the majority of his time at the shelter, and Seonghwa understands why Joonmyun would be tight-lipped about himself since he puts so much pressure on himself to be a perfect role model for the hybrids.
Not that Joonmyun is any less perfect for liking a man, but it’s obviously something he’s concerned about, considering the deer-caught-in-the-headlights look he’s giving Seonghwa.
“Seonghwa,” he says, as Seonghwa sets his bags of groceries on the ground, not saying anything. “You weren’t supposed to see that.”
“We’ve been dating for years,” Sehun says from behind Joonmyun. “Surely your kids, especially Seonghwa, won’t care about that kind of thing, Joonmyun.”
“Give me a second, Sehunnie, please,” Joonmyun says. He’s still holding Sehun’s hand, which he pats soothingly before letting go. The gesture is small, but it’s filled with fondness, and Seonghwa doesn’t know why seeing it brings Hongjoong to mind.
(Because, maybe, if he’s being honest with himself, he wants what Joonmyun and Sehun have with Hongjoong, even if Hongjoong’s changing into someone Seonghwa is afraid he will soon no longer recognize. Hongjoong doesn’t see Seonghwa’s devotion at all, and Seonghwa’s heart aches every day because of it.)
Joonmyun asks, “Seonghwa, will you come with me?”
“It doesn’t change anything,” Seonghwa says, when they’re sitting on the couch out in the living area, which is more of an open space than an enclosed room. “You’re still my Joonmyun hyung.”
“Thank you,” Joonmyun says. He ruffles Seonghwa’s hair, and Seonghwa leans into the touch because no matter how old he gets, he loves affectionate pets on the head. “I’m going to ask you to keep it a secret anyways.”
“Why?” Seonghwa asks. “The kids won’t care.”
“They won’t, and that’s the problem,” Joonmyun says. His smile is wry. “If they say anything careless, people will question my integrity and validity as a shelter owner and start making up all sorts of rumors.”
“That’s stupid,” Seonghwa says. Joonmyun is strong and brave, and Seonghwa is too old to offer Joonmyun something silly like tuna as comfort, but too young to know the right thing to do or say. “I don’t like that. You’re the kindest person I’ve ever met, and that doesn’t change just because you like Sehun-ssi.”
“It is,” Joonmyun agrees. “But society isn’t very kind to people who don’t fit every single part of the mold, and I have to live with that in the most peaceful way I can manage.”
Seonghwa headbutts Joonmyun under the chin, and Joonmyun laughs, because Seonghwa’s taller than him now, and that means he’s much too big to be doing the things he used to do as a kitten. “What’s that for, Seonghwa?”
“Emotional support,” Seonghwa answers, and recalls the way Sehun had held Joonmyun like Joonmyun was something precious. “I like Sehun-ssi.”
“I like him, too,” Joonmyun says with a wink. “I love you very much, my little prince.”
Seonghwa grins at the old nickname, and for a moment, the hole inside his chest left by Hongjoong’s ever growing absence feels a little less empty.
☽ ☽ ☽
Although Joonmyun hadn’t intended for Seonghwa to find out, their relationship becomes closer than ever once Seonghwa is made aware of who Sehun is to Joonmyun.
Sehun becomes like a second parent to Seonghwa, bringing Seonghwa dried fish snacks after coming back from business trips and taking him biking along the river when there’s good weather. His facial expressions change even less than seven year old Hongjoong’s had, but he laughs at an uncharacteristically high pitch that makes Seonghwa start laughing every time he hears it, and Sehun listens to Seonghwa in the same attentive way that Joonmyun does, offering heartfelt advice without ever talking down to Seonghwa just because Seonghwa’s younger or a cat.
“Why don’t you attend some classes?” Sehun asks, when he sees Seonghwa’s nearly filled notebook of recipes, meticulously color coded post it notes sticking out the sides and the cover covered in various cat, fish and ice cream stickers.
They’re sitting at the dining table, Seonghwa having served Sehun some egg tarts he’s experimenting with. He likes getting Sehun’s opinion, because Joonmyun only ever showers him with compliments, and while Sehun is very kind about the feedback he gives, he’s often able to pinpoint specific areas where Seonghwa can improve.
Seonghwa rolls his upper lip inward, not sure what to make of the idea. “Classes?”
“Yeah, like food nutrition or more specific things like pastries, if you’re interested,” Sehun asks. “You could learn by yourself, of course, with all the free online content that’s out there, but it might do you good to meet new people.”
Seonghwa had been less shy about meeting people when he was younger, completely unafraid of the old ladies at the market who would coo over him and pet his head, but now…
Now he’s sixteen, and a little uncomfortable in his own skin, even though everyone says he’s turned out handsome and he often gets stopped by agency recruiters on the street, who offer him a future in the entertainment industry. Seonghwa always takes their business cards to be polite, but never calls back because he’s not interested in that sort of thing.
And, well, Seonghwa’s never taken real classes where there are humans and hybrids, so he’s a little afraid of the unknown aspect of venturing out into such a big, intimidating world.
Plus, there’s a part of him that’s afraid to do as Sehun suggests, because he could meet new friends who maybe fit him better than Hongjoong fits him, and then he really won’t be able to give Hongjoong the forever that Seonghwa had promised him when they were thirteen. If he stays in the same place like a lighthouse standing strong amongst rough ocean waters, Hongjoong’s ship might come back to him again, and things will return to how they’ve always been.
It’s a silly idea, Seonghwa knows, but he can’t help holding onto that tiny sliver of hope.
“I don’t know about classes,” he says, finally.
“Why?” Sehun asks, staring at Seonghwa intently. “Are you afraid that it’ll make you drift even farther from Hongjoong?”
Seonghwa glances up at the older man in surprise.
“You two used to stick together like glue, but lately he’s been busy with his classes and you’ve looked like a kicked puppy every time he leaves,” Sehun says. Seonghwa sweeps some crumbs from the tabletop into his palm, disposing of them in the plate he’s no longer using. “Though, I guess in your case, it’s more kicked kitten than puppy.”
Seonghwa would just brush it off, but Sehun’s teasing words contradict the thoughtful gaze he’s directing at Seonghwa, an open invitation for Seonghwa to confide in him.
Seonghwa blows air upwards to get his bangs out of his eyes. “I want to stay close with him, but I don’t know how,” Seonghwa says. “He keeps getting farther and farther away, and I hate it but I know I can’t do anything about it.”
“Oh Seonghwa,” Sehun says, voice soft. “Do you want a hug?”
“Yes,” Seonghwa says, cramming the top of his head under Sehun’s chin even though he’s almost the same height as Sehun now.
“You’re so big,” Sehun says. “A big and handsome cat.” He pats Seonghwa’s back gently, and Seonghwa puts more of his weight on Sehun. “Oof, and heavy.”
“Am not,” Seonghwa says. “Joonmyun says I need to eat more.”
“Joonmyun thinks everyone needs to eat more because he’s a mother hen,” Sehun says, rolling his eyes, but there’s no actual ill will in the gesture. “But Seonghwa, stuff like this…friendships changing, interests shifting, it’s all part of the process of growing up. You can only control your own actions, but you can’t control other people’s hearts or minds, and you’re going to have to be okay with letting go if the friendship or relationship starts becoming a one sided street.”
Seonghwa follows that principle for everything and everyone else in his life, but the thought of having to fully accept not having Hongjoong as his best friend anymore makes it awfully hard to breathe. “Would you let go of Joonmyun if he wanted you to?” he asks Sehun.
“Well,” Sehun says, laughing and not explaining, and Seonghwa headbutts the side of Sehun’s face to make him talk faster. He’s going to get fur all over Sehun’s nice slacks because Sehun is hugging him so tightly, but he doesn’t think Sehun really cares. “I had to do that once, and it sucked, and I’m not going to do it again.”
“You did?” Seonghwa says, and Sehun nods.
“When we were almost dating, Joonmyun freaked out and wanted space, because he was scared that being selfish would result in a giant disaster somewhere in the long run,” Sehun says. “So I gave him space.”
Seonghwa wiggles his toes as he considers what Sehun’s said. “And then?”
“I was lucky, because he quickly realized he hated the distance between us more than he feared what people in our immediate social circles would think of him if we were together,” Sehun says. “So there is a possibility that giving Hongjoong space might eventually help you guys get closer in the future, Seonghwa, when both of you have matured and chilled out. You can’t force stuff like this overnight.”
“I want to be close now,” Seonghwa says, and Sehun laughs.
Joonmyun chooses to come in from the garden at that moment, closing the screen door almost silently in characteristic Joonmyun style, blinking for a few seconds as he processes the image of Sehun and Seonghwa crammed into one dining chair before he chuckles and asks, “Having a heart to heart?”
Joonmyun is so handsome and cute like this, even with his dorky middle part in his hair and dirt smeared across his cheek. Seonghwa can see why Sehun’s in love with him.
“We’re talking shit about you,” Sehun says in his monotone voice. “Get ready for a revolution.”
“Alright,” Joonmyun says good-naturedly. “You can take care of all the screaming children here and I’ll go rescue kittens and puppies and be a hero in the newspapers.”
“Aw, don’t be like that,” Sehun says, and Joonmyun does his moon-crescent eye smile that means he’s just joking, signaling forgiveness. “What do you think about Seonghwa taking classes for food nutrition or cooking, Joonmyun?”
“It’s a good idea,” Joonmyun says, as he rummages through the drawers in search of something. “Do you want to do that, Seonghwa?”
“Um,” Seonghwa says. “I…maybe?”
“Just let me know,” Joonmyun says. “We have a friend who teaches a lot of cuisine-based courses at an academy near the one Hongjoong attends. His name is Kyungsoo and he’s very nice. You’ll love him.”
Sehun murmurs in agreement, scratching Seonghwa’s ears tenderly.
Seonghwa might be a black cat, but with two human hyungs always watching out for him, who are so unbelievably willing to give him more than he deserves when Seonghwa can’t offer much in return except for his heart, he thinks he got incredibly lucky.
☽ ☽ ☽
Joonmyun is right. Seonghwa does love Kyungsoo, as much as he can love someone he’s only met a handful of times.
What anyone fails to notify Seonghwa about is that Kyungsoo is a cat, too, with round, adorable eyes and a heart shaped smile that reveals his gums whenever he’s at level Peak Amusement. He’s a black cat, just like Seonghwa, who’s never met anyone else with solid black ears. It’s comforting to see an adult black cat like Kyungsoo doing so well, with so many human and hybrid students head over heels in love with him for his expertise and kind personality because it allows Seonghwa to envision an equally positive future for himself.
Despite people thinking he’s handsome, Seonghwa has continued to hear multiple strangers or shelter visitors ask Joonmyun if he brings bad luck throughout the years, and it always hurts him to know people would assume that about him just because of the color of his fur. No matter how many times Joonmyun defends him or tells him that people are just ignorant, the hurt lingers longer than Seonghwa would like it to.
But here, no one cares that he’s a black cat. Everyone in the cooking class is so… kind to Seonghwa, and so eager to share their ideas, and Seonghwa starts, slowly, to understand why Hongjoong had sought out like-minded people in his music and art classes.
Kyungsoo takes a liking to Seonghwa pretty quickly, because Seonghwa is serious about everything he sets out to do, even if he’s got a face that doesn’t look like it.
“You’re a natural,” he says to Seonghwa four months after their initial meeting, in the middle of Seonghwa attempting to temper chocolate. “Not just this. Everything cooking-related, I mean.”
“Thank you, Kyungsoo-ssi,” Seonghwa says.
“You can call me hyung,” Kyungsoo says, and while Seonghwa panics internally at the thought of calling such a talented person hyung, Kyungsoo goes on to ask, “How do you feel about working at my café?”
Seonghwa nearly drops everything, but his one brain cell has him holding onto his spatula properly. “I don’t know enough to be working at your café, Kyungsoo-ssi.”
“It’s ‘hyung,’” Kyungsoo corrects him, and Seonghwa nods furiously. “It’s okay that you don’t know enough. You have the potential to learn a lot as long as someone teaches you, so I think it would be a good experience for you. Only if you want to, though.”
“Oh,” Seonghwa says, bowing with his head because he can’t do it with his whole body right now. “Thank you very much, Kyungsoo hyung.”
“And I’d like having another black cat around,” Kyungsoo says, gums showing as he grins at Seonghwa. “Would make me feel more at home.”
Seonghwa is so starstruck that he forgets to respond until he realizes Kyungsoo is looking at him expectantly, and then Seonghwa sputters and asks, “Can I think about it?”
“Of course,” Kyungsoo says, patting Seonghwa on the shoulder. “I’ll leave you to your chocolate now~”
Seonghwa already knows the answer is yes, even if being around so many strangers would be a little unnerving, but he’s doing pretty well in these classes and adjusting quickly to meeting new people regularly. He just wants to consult with Joonmyun and Sehun, first, so that he knows he’s not making any hasty decisions.
☽ ☽ ☽
A week later, Seonghwa comes home late in the evening, because he’d been invited to dinner with a small group of students from his cooking class and Joonmyun had encouraged him to socialize more outside of the academy activities.
It was fun and Seonghwa liked it, but he likes the idea of coming home even more and looks forward to sleeping like a log until the sun comes up tomorrow morning.
He’s not thinking about much other than brushing his teeth, cleaning, and going right to bed as he heads towards his shared room with Hongjoong, but when he passes through the doorway, he gets pulled violently onto Hongjoong’s bed and yelps at the surprise attack.
“Wha—” Seonghwa’s barely able to catch his breath with the small ball of fury sitting on top of him. “Hongjoong?”
“You’ve been busy lately,” Hongjoong says. His tail whacks Seonghwa’s thigh a few times in irritation.
“Yes?” Seonghwa says, then offers a hesitant smile. “I’m studying cooking!”
“I know,” Hongjoong says, and he doesn’t smile back at Seonghwa. “Joonmyun hyung and Sehun-ssi told me all about it.”
Something about his voice sounds weird, but Seonghwa can’t pinpoint what exactly is weird about it because he’s so tired, and the tie-dye swirls of Hongjoong’s pink t-shirt make his vision swim, too.
Hongjoong’s added a couple new piercings to his ears since the last time they were this close and personal with each other, and the deep, rusty red he’d dyed his hair a few weeks ago is fading out. The color had suited him, even if Seonghwa will always like Hongjoong’s natural golden fur best.
“Ah, I see,” Seonghwa says, squirming underneath the weight of Hongjoong’s body because Hongjoong’s bulked up now, more muscle than anything else, and he doesn’t like having a conversation where he has to lift his neck to see Hongjoong properly.
“Stop moving,” Hongjoong orders.
“You’re heavy~” Seonghwa whines. “I’m going to die.”
“Suffer for two seconds, will you?” Hongjoong says grumpily, and Seonghwa pouts.
“Why are you being mean?” Seonghwa asks, even as he tries his best to stay still. He’s glad that Hongjoong’s initiated a conversation with him, even if Hongjoong seems kind of cranky.
“Are you trying to get back at me, or something?” Hongjoong asks. “By taking classes at the times when I’m home, and making new friends?”
Seonghwa scratches at the side of his stomach, confused. “Getting back at you?” he echoes. “Hongjoong, I don’t get it.”
“You’re still mad at me for taking classes at the academy and leaving you alone,” Hongjoong says. “That’s what it is, right?”
“No?” Seonghwa says. “Sehun hyung just suggested that I learn more about cooking since I like it so much, and he and Joonmyun hyung have a friend who teaches, so…”
That explanation doesn’t seem to make Hongjoong any less annoyed, because he furrows his brows at the mere mention of Sehun’s name. “It’s always ‘Sehun’ this, ‘Sehun’ that,” Hongjoong says. “You’re real close with him lately.”
“Sehun hyung is nice to me,” Seonghwa says. He’s not sure whether Hongjoong knows that Sehun is Joonmyun’s boyfriend, but he doesn’t want to risk it, even if Hongjoong seems to be getting more and more resentful by the second. “He brings me fish snacks, and he takes me biking.”
“Is that all it takes for you to like someone? How many snacks they buy you?” Hongjoong asks.
“No,” Seonghwa says. He’s not that featherbrained to base his affection for someone on the amount of gifts he receives from them, but a lot of the time, gifts mean that someone’s thinking of you, and to be in someone’s heart is already a gift in itself. He doesn’t know why Hongjoong’s picking a fight about something so trivial. “Why are you upset?”
“Because you’re acting out! I said that I wanted to figure out who I was by myself, and then you go and ignore me to hang out with Sehun and your other friends all the time,” Hongjoong says.
“Because you’re busy!” Seonghwa says, bewildered at the turn in the conversation. “You wanted space, and I figured I was being too clingy, so I tried to do something useful by myself, too.”
“I never said I wanted space,” Hongjoong says, which gives Seonghwa emotional whiplash. “And—”
“You wanted more like-minded friends!” Seonghwa says, frustrated. Puberty makes everything so messy, and his brain feels like scrambled eggs. “Isn’t that why you’re taking those classes? To learn and find more people like you? Why am I the bad person for wanting to do the same thing?”
“Because I still made time for you, but you’re forgetting about me entirely,” Hongjoong says, and Seonghwa gapes at him. “Nowadays, you don’t bug me in the mornings at all, you just sleep in, and you don’t try to crawl in my bed in the evenings and sing me off tune lullabies. You don’t draw me stupid pictures on sticky notes anymore, and you never care about where I am at all.”
Seonghwa’s so thrown off by the outburst that all he can think of to say is, “Hongjoong, sorry, sorry,” and Hongjoong’s frown fades a tiny bit.
“You don’t care about me anymore?” Hongjoong says, with an air of petulance that’s undermined by the anxious curl of his lip.
“I do,” Seonghwa says, and means it. “Always, I always care about you.”
Hongjoong’s face softens. “Then are we not best friends?”
“Well,” Seonghwa says, and Hongjoong’s eyes widen at the hesitation in Seonghwa’s voice. “I thought you didn’t really need that anymore, not from me.”
Hongjoong finally gets off of Seonghwa, tucking his legs in to sit cross legged as Seonghwa sits up.
“I do, I do need it,” Hongjoong says. “You get that, right? I knew you took that thing about me existing without you so personally, but I didn’t mean that I don’t want you around anymore. I was just trying to figure out what I wanted for myself.”
Seonghwa stares at Hongjoong’s face, and sees desperation, and confusion, and honesty. He doesn’t blame Hongjoong for having needed a period of time to himself so that he could develop and grow without Seonghwa clinging onto him 24/7, but growing up has been nothing but rocky for both of them, and Seonghwa thinks he’s always going to be afraid that Hongjoong might throw him away when they get too dependent on each other again.
“Did you?” Seonghwa asks. “Figure it out?”
Because Seonghwa hasn’t. Every time he sees Joonmyun and Sehun together, loneliness pulls at him and settles deep into his bones, and he’s not sure what he wants other than for Hongjoong to always look at him. But the greed for more, more, more can ruin even the smartest, most strategic of them, and Seonghwa’s a black cat with little ambition, so he shouldn’t push his luck.
“I think so,” Hongjoong says, though he doesn’t look like he quite believes it himself. He looks more sure when he says, “But you promised me forever, Seonghwa. You don’t get to back out now. We’re going to be best friends until we’re old and wrinkly with salt and pepper fur.”
“I did promise you that,” Seonghwa says and wonders why, when this is what he’s always wanted, he only feels torn between laughing and crying.
☽ ☽ ☽
On a lazy Sunday afternoon, Hongjoong grooms Seonghwa with his warm, sandpaper tongue when he thinks Seonghwa is deep asleep, and Seonghwa doesn’t know what it means, because they’re both fully grown now and Hongjoong had never done it even when they were kids, and Seonghwa’s heart feels like it’s going to jump out of his chest.
☽ ☽ ☽
Seonghwa promises Hongjoong forever, but the idea of forever eats at him from the inside out when Seonghwa realizes that emotions are most certainly feral, and that maybe he’d thrown himself into cooking classes and newfound friendships in order to ignore everything else going on inside of him, because jealousy is not the sort of emotion Seonghwa has ever learned to deal with gracefully.
When Hongjoong turns seventeen, he takes an apprenticeship at a tailoring shop a thirty minute bus ride away from the hybrid shelter. Seonghwa is ecstatic for him, because working at Kyungsoo’s café has made Seonghwa happier in so many ways and he wants the same thing for Hongjoong.
That is, until he realizes how popular Hongjoong is.
He and Yeosang visit the shop Hongjoong works at, a fancy little place that’s dimly lit and smells like expensive department store without actually being one, and Hongjoong is wearing a suit tailored just for him that makes Seonghwa’s stomach drop uncomfortably.
He looks really… handsome, and he’s surrounded by female customers, who keep laughing at everything Hongjoong says. It’s understandable, how much they like him, because Seonghwa has always known that Hongjoong is beautiful, with ashy golden hair that he’s finally stopped dyeing and a perfectly shaped smile. It’s not heart shaped, like Kyungsoo’s, or pain-shaped, like Seonghwa’s, but it’s perfect even if Seonghwa has no words to do the beauty of Hongjoong’s smile (and his everything else) justice.
Despite all that logic being readily available in his own mind, Seonghwa’s dumb, primal brain just keeps repeating mine, mine, mine. After all, Hongjoong is his cat, even if Seonghwa doesn’t know exactly what that encompasses, and anyone who’s not Seonghwa shouldn’t touch Hongjoong so carelessly.
Seonghwa doesn’t realize how hard he’s clenching his cheek muscles until Yeosang bumps him in the hip and asks, “Why do you look so unhappy?”
Seonghwa turns to glare at Yeosang, although it’s not on purpose, and he quickly schools his face into a kinder expression when Yeosang flinches. “What?”
Yeosang still looks a little startled, so Seonghwa uses his tail to brush against Yeosang’s hand in apology.
“You look like someone just fed you lemons,” Yeosang says, squeezing Seonghwa’s tail briefly in easy acceptance of Seonghwa’s apology, before he lets go. “Aren’t you happy to see Hongjoong?”
“Yes,” Seonghwa says. In theory, he’s supposed to be. Hongjoong’s doing well at something he’s been passionate about since he was seven, and Seonghwa only wants him to grow even more from here, because Hongjoong deserves success and praise and love after all he’s been through. In execution, Seonghwa’s not so happy, because it’s not just Hongjoong he’s seeing at this moment, but how much other people like Hongjoong, too, and it makes him queasy inside.
Yeosang hums thoughtfully. “Do you like one of the girls here or something?”
“No,” Seonghwa says.
“Guess not,” Yeosang says, like he’s completely unsurprised. “You don’t seem that interested in girls.”
The words stir up feelings behind a door Seonghwa isn’t ready to open yet, and his eyes widen as he asks, “What do you mean by that?”
“I’ve seen you working at Kyungsoo’s café, remember? Girls always hit on you, but you don’t have much of a reaction to any of them,” Yeosang says. “Mr. Heartbreaker~”
“Don’t call me that,” Seonghwa hisses, because Yeosang makes it sound like Seonghwa’s smug about hurting people’s feelings, and it’s not true at all. “I just don’t know any of them.” Girls are soft, and cute, and lovely. He likes how much they enjoy the pastries and sweets he makes, and that they don’t seem to mind him being a black cat, but he doesn’t feel drawn to any one of them in particular.
Yeosang’s teal-colored eyes seem to pierce through Seonghwa’s thinly constructed façade. He’s never been much of a talker, but his words always pack a punch like an arrow born to hit the bullseye of its target. His tone of voice is nonchalant as he says, “So you’re jealous of the girls. Not of Hongjoong.”
“I’m not jealous of anyone,” Seonghwa says, looking down at the floor. His ears feel hot, and he tries his best not to let it travel to his cheeks. “And no one hits on me. You’re thinking too much.”
“Okay,” Yeosang says, and drops the topic like the champ he is. “Let’s go say hi to Hongjoong, and then we can get ice cream at that place I wanted to go to.”
“Okay,” Seonghwa says, feeling better now that Yeosang’s no longer grilling him for answers to questions that terrify him, and wonders when his feelings towards Hongjoong will stop being so complicated.
☽ ☽ ☽
He’s not sure whether it’s the culmination of years of undefined affection or just Yeosang’s blunt observation, but suddenly Seonghwa understands a lot more about himself than he’s ever been prepared for.
What no one tells you about getting older and defining your identity is that, sometimes, the discoveries you make are ones you don’t like and don’t want to know. But they’re there, and you can only ignore them for so long before you need to face them head on.
It clicks into place, just like how Seonghwa’s seemingly full heart had only really felt full when Hongjoong smiled at him big and wide for the first time, back when they were seven and Seonghwa had put his whole soul into a drawing in order to befriend the smaller kitten.
Hongjoong smiles a lot at him, these days. Across the dinner table. When they’re brushing their teeth together. Before he leaves for work, and tells Seonghwa to have a good day at the cafe. He curls up next to Seonghwa when Seonghwa’s watching TV, sitting so close that Seonghwa can feel the exhale of Hongjoong’s laugh against his neck, stroking the micro-hairs in between the base and middle knuckles of Seonghwa’s fingers. He gifts Seonghwa a handmade necklace with a moon pendant, just because he “felt like it,” and Seonghwa wonders if Hongjoong knows that by doing such a thing, he’s chaining Seonghwa’s heart to him for life.
All of this makes Seonghwa’s heart feel like it’s going to burst. Eleven years with Hongjoong has filled Seonghwa’s heart to its maximum capacity, and there’s only so much he can continue to handle before it starts hurting him, because there’s nowhere else for all that bottled up affection to go.
☽ ☽ ☽
Seonghwa is not sure whether he fell bit by bit, or crashed into Hongjoong’s orbit all at once from the very beginning, but it’s all the same in the end.
Seonghwa is eighteen years old when he finally admits to himself that he’s in love with Kim Hongjoong, and he’s miserable because of it.
☽ ☽ ☽
It’s almost worse that Hongjoong’s just as attached to Seonghwa as Seonghwa is to him, even if it’s a different sort of love, because he keeps giving Seonghwa hope when Seonghwa is already so vulnerable.
Seonghwa considers moving out, to preserve his sanity, but then Hongjoong will crawl into his personal space and show Seonghwa an excerpt of whatever book he’s reading with bright, shiny eyes, and the idea always flies out the window.
I love you, Seonghwa thinks every time he looks at Hongjoong, and he wonders if Hongjoong ever hears him.
☽ ☽ ☽
By the time Seonghwa is nineteen, he’s become a master of deception, because he wakes up every morning and forces himself to live a lie so that he and Hongjoong can have the forever that Hongjoong deserves. Keeping Hongjoong in his life as a friend is more important than any selfish desire Seonghwa might have to possess Hongjoong more than that.
Hongjoong gets a girlfriend in the fall, and Seonghwa… Seonghwa gets through it. He smiles at Hongjoong whenever Hongjoong’s meeting her, tells him to have fun, but declines all invitations to hang out together when he knows that he’d instantly shatter at the sight of Hongjoong prioritizing someone else over him.
☽ ☽ ☽
“Why did Hongjoong get a girlfriend?” Yeosang asks.
“Because he wanted to,” Seonghwa says blankly, and Yeosang stares at him soullessly until Seonghwa’s ears flatten and he shows his genuine disappointment.
“I thought he was…” Yeosang says. “You two were all…”
“What?” Seonghwa asks.
Yeosang’s never made him say it out loud, but even without Seonghwa admitting anything concretely, Yeosang probably knows how Seonghwa feels about Hongjoong.
“He’s meaner than I expected,” Yeosang says, after a moment of consideration. “He knows what he’s doing when he crawls all over you like that. He’s the one who gave you that necklace, too, right?”
“He doesn’t mean anything,” Seonghwa says, and that’s the worst part of it all. That Hongjoong pulls Seonghwa’s heart into the clouds only to let it free fall onto the cold hard ground, and that he’s chosen to get a girlfriend who barely knows him when Seonghwa has been standing right next to him this whole time.
Yeosang drags Seonghwa to get ice cream twice as frequently and pays for Seonghwa a suspiciously high number of times, but he doesn’t ask Seonghwa any more hard questions and just finds perfect squares of sunlight in the park for them to sit in until the squares shift too far away and they’ve been out long enough to be hurrying back home.
☽ ☽ ☽
Hongjoong breaks up with his girlfriend after two months.
“Why?” Seonghwa asks. “Wasn’t she good for you?”
“You never met her, so what would you know?” Hongjoong snaps at him, because he’s sensitive and Seonghwa is in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Seonghwa’s ears flatten, and he decides it’s better to leave Hongjoong alone for the time being before Hongjoong sinks angry claws into him. Self-preservation is not Seonghwa’s forte, or else he would have left Hongjoong a long time ago, but he’s also not going to let Hongjoong use him as an emotional punching bag just because they’re best friends.
Hongjoong finds Seonghwa in the kitchen later, peeling potatoes silently, and curls his tail around Seonghwa’s waist. “Sorry,” he says. “I shouldn’t have yelled at you. She...we just weren’t compatible, that’s all.”
“It’s okay,” Seonghwa says, because he’s used to heartbreak when it comes to Hongjoong, and Hongjoong losing his temper in a moment of vulnerability isn’t bad enough to leave a scar on him.
Seonghwa isn’t happy or unhappy at this development, because he knows the cycle will repeat, and that he’s always going to live under the shadow of Hongjoong possibly picking someone else. Seonghwa’s more scared than anything else, because his heart can only break so many times before it’ll become impossible to put it back together at all.
☽ ☽ ☽
Hongjoong does this thing, sometimes, where he sneaks into Seonghwa’s bed and mashes his head into Seonghwa’s chest, making himself comfortable until he falls asleep and Seonghwa can clearly feel the vibrations of Hongjoong’s contented purring because they’re smushed together.
“You’re too old to be clinging to me like this,” Seonghwa says, sighing, even as he resigns himself to brushing Hongjoong’s choppy bangs out of his face and pulls the blankets higher so that Hongjoong doesn’t catch a cold.
He’s not sure whether Hongjoong’s just pretending not to hear him, but it doesn’t matter. Whether it’s tomorrow, a year, or ten years from now, Seonghwa’s heart will always search for Hongjoong’s to beat in time to no matter how hard he tries to fight it.
☽ ☽ ☽
“You look sad, recently,” Kyungsoo observes. Seonghwa is staring at the crumbs and dirt that are accumulating on the tiled floor, wanting badly to clean it all up, but he has to keep an eye on the curry pastries in the oven and make sure they don’t burn. “All your fangirls out there are sad because you’re sad.”
“Sorry,” Seonghwa says, tail drooping.
“I’m not lecturing you,” Kyungsoo says. He rests the palms of his hands on the counter behind him. “Is it because of your small friend?”
“You’re the same size as him, hyung,” Seonghwa says, trying not to laugh when Kyungsoo glares at him.
“Take it back right now,” Kyungsoo says. “I miss when you were a respectful dongsaeng.”
“Sorry, sorry,” Seonghwa says. “You’re much taller than him, hyung. Maybe by a centimeter?”
“Unbelievable,” Kyungsoo mutters, but there’s no bite to his voice. “So tell me what’s up.”
“It’s just something I have to sort out myself,” Seonghwa says. “I’ll get over it soon.”
“Okay,” Kyungsoo says, and he seems to leave it at just that, before thinking better of it and adding, “I don’t know if this helps, but you don’t have to hold it all in and suffer alone. It might be scary to tell people how you’re feeling, but people can surprise you in a good way if you give them the chance.”
“Thank you,” Seonghwa says. He feels like Joonmyun or Sehun might have said something to Kyungsoo. They don’t pry, thank goodness, but they’re wise, old adults who are unnecessarily perceptive about everything. “I’ll keep that in mind, hyung.”
“Good, good,” Kyungsoo says. “Make up with your friend quickly, okay? And make sure those pastries don’t burn, or I’m going to take the damages out of your paycheck.” He wiggles his eyebrows playfully, and Seonghwa lets out a squeaky laugh at the threat.
☽ ☽ ☽
Seonghwa is twenty now. He does everything right, and gives Hongjoong as much space or touch as Hongjoong needs from him. There are no obstacles between them, just the giant lie that Seonghwa pushes down his throat every time Hongjoong gets too close to him and leaves his cologne all over Seonghwa’s clothes.
Hongjoong somehow manages to become even more beautiful with every day that passes, on both the outside and the inside, and anyone who has ever believed that time is all you need to move on from loving someone has obviously never met Kim Hongjoong.
Hongjoong stares at Seonghwa, sometimes, for such a long time that Seonghwa thinks his feelings have been found out, but Hongjoong never voices whatever it is that’s got him all emotionally clogged up, and Seonghwa is just relieved to get through another day without Hongjoong realizing how hopelessly in love Seonghwa is with him.
☽ ☽ ☽
There’s a regular who visits the café every other weekday and always orders the same thing: a large latte and slice of tiramisu cake. He’s a cat hybrid, too, with gray hair and bits of white tufts at the tips of his ears, and he always smiles at Seonghwa sweetly.
Kyungsoo has an unspoken policy for taking care of longtime customers, so when Seonghwa has a bit of spare time, he packs a bag of lemon drop cookies and finds the regular at his usual corner by the window. The man’s eyes are closed, and he’s raising his face up towards the sunlight, in typical cat fashion.
“This is for you,” Seonghwa says, when the man senses his presence and opens his eyes to look up at Seonghwa. “It’s on the house, as a gesture of gratitude for you visiting us so much.”
“Oh~” the man’s ears twitch cutely as he accepts the gift, thumbing over the yellow ribbon. “I love cookies, thank you.”
Seonghwa smiles at him and turns to get back to work, but the man speaks again. “Can I get your name?”
“Ah,” Seonghwa says. “It’s ‘Seonghwa.’”
“I’m Wooyoung,” the man says and Seonghwa nods politely in greeting. “Would you be interested in seeing a film together, maybe?”
For a few seconds, the words fly right over Seonghwa’s head and he blinks at Wooyoung numbly before finally processing what the man has just said.
“No pressure,” Wooyoung says pleasantly. “I’m sure you get a lot of similar invitations.”
Wooyoung’s smile has always been kind, and he’s the first man to ever ask Seonghwa out so gently, and that makes Seonghwa give in to wishful thinking in his moment of weakness. It’s probably a lost cause, because Seonghwa is a black cat who’s in love with a golden fireball of a cat who won’t ever love him back, but he would like to hope that he still deserves a shot at happiness.
“Okay,” Seonghwa says, and Wooyoung’s eyes widen, like he wasn’t expecting even a chance that Seonghwa might agree.
Seonghwa nods, trying his best to make his smile reach his eyes, and does not think about Hongjoong.
☽ ☽ ☽
After the film has ended, and they’ve stepped outside of the movie theater and there’s no one paying attention to them, Wooyoung kisses Seonghwa on the cheek.
“Did you like the film?” he asks Seonghwa, with a very pretty smile as he warms Seonghwa’s hands in between his.
“Yes,” Seonghwa says. Wooyoung is so considerate, and Seonghwa hates himself, because all he can think about is Hongjoong’s smile and the fact that Hongjoong’s hands are smaller in comparison to Wooyoung’s. That no matter how good Wooyoung is at protecting Seonghwa from the cold, Seonghwa would rather it be Hongjoong in his arms, even if that means he’s the one to bear the chilliness of winter.
“Would you like to do this again sometime?” Wooyoung asks, and Seonghwa doesn’t have the heart to lead on a man who deserves better.
“Sorry,” Seonghwa says, and he pulls his hands out of Wooyoung’s, gently. “I wanted to try, because you’re very kind, but…”
“You’re in love with someone else?” Wooyoung guesses.
“Is it that obvious?” Seonghwa asks, with a bitter laugh.
“No,” Wooyoung says. His laugh is not bitter, which makes Seonghwa feel a tiny bit better. “I just have a tendency to fall for people who love very deeply, but it’s never me who they love.”
“I’m sorry,” Seonghwa says. He shouldn’t have been so selfish, to try and use someone else to get over Hongjoong when he knew it wouldn’t work in the first place.
“No hard feelings,” Wooyoung says lightly. “Maybe we can be friends, after I get over you breaking my heart!”
“Don’t make me feel worse,” Seonghwa says, and Wooyoung bumps him on the shoulder in a truce.
“I’m kidding,” Wooyoung says.
They end their date when they’ve reached Wooyoung’s car, because Seonghwa declines Wooyoung’s offer to drive him home. Wooyoung’s smile is, objectively, very pretty and Seonghwa’s heart aches at the fact that it can no longer open to anyone else besides Hongjoong.
“I hope things work out for you,” Wooyoung says. “Get home safely, Seonghwa-ssi~”
“Thank you very much. You too,” Seonghwa says, and heads for the closest bus stop towards home.
☽ ☽ ☽
“You’re home late,” Hongjoong says.
“Sorry~” Seonghwa says, running his hand through his hair. It’s greasy from a long day outside and the hair gel he put in it this morning, so he needs a shower. “The café was busy.”
“Was that all you were doing?” Hongjoong’s ears twitch, but Seonghwa doesn’t look long enough to see whether it’s an involuntary twitch or a twitch with meaning.
Seonghwa frowns as he takes off his coat and sweater, changing into a soft black hoodie before he heads to the bathroom to wash up. “What?”
“Did you hang out with any of your friends after work?”
“Yes…?” Seonghwa says, tilting his head. Hongjoong isn’t usually this insistent on knowing where Seonghwa has been.
“Which one?” Hongjoong asks.
“You don’t know them,” Seonghwa says.
“So you’re not going to tell me?” Hongjoong asks, voice that familiar tone of odd that Seonghwa has never been quite able to figure out.
When he looks closely at Hongjoong’s facial expression, Seonghwa realizes that the ear twitch he’d caught from the corner of his eye was definitely one of anger.
He massages his face with one hand. As tolerant as he is of most things, he really doesn’t need Hongjoong being snippy with him when he’s already dealing with enough internal turmoil about going on the date at all.
“His name’s Wooyoung,” Seonghwa says. “He visits the café sometimes, so we just went to see a film. Happy?”
“Yes,” Hongjoong says, sounding and looking the absolute opposite of happy, but Seonghwa is tired, and in love, and he wants Hongjoong to give him peace for just one night.
“I’m going to shower,” Seonghwa says, and grabs a change of clothes, slipping into the bathroom before Hongjoong can ask him any more questions about what he’s been up to.
☽ ☽ ☽
Something about their conversation offends Hongjoong, and Seonghwa is floored when Hongjoong shies away from his touch the next morning and refuses to look Seonghwa in the eye throughout the entirety of breakfast. Seonghwa sifts through the events from yesterday to try and figure out what he’s done wrong, but it’s like he’s been thrown five years into the past, because Hongjoong is acting like he’s fifteen again and sick of Seonghwa clinging to him.
If Seonghwa were younger, he’d stew over it for days and stress himself out unnecessarily, wondering why Hongjoong was behaving this way, only to resolve things through a small, unexpected action.
Except they’re not kids anymore. Seonghwa can’t close this rift between them by holding Hongjoong’s pinky finger or bringing him sushi cake or smacking Hongjoong’s tail until he stops being pissy, because that seems unfitting and childish for the comfortable relationship they’ve settled into as twenty year old adults.
So Seonghwa puts on his big boy pants and decides he’ll be the one to fix this, because Hongjoong is much too important to him for them to be skating around each other like teenage schoolboys with unresolved beef. Even if it takes some discomfort and some time, they’re going to figure it out. They always do.
And even though some part of Seonghwa thinks that this might be better, that Hongjoong choosing to distance himself from Seonghwa again is an opportunity for Seonghwa to move on and stop hurting, Seonghwa doesn’t want that. He wants Hongjoong to smile at him and eat his cooking and share all the details from his workday at the fancy tailor shop where he’s nearing three years of employment. He wants to have Hongjoong close, even if Hongjoong doesn’t know what it means to Seonghwa, because Seonghwa deserves this at the very least and he’s not asking for anything more.
It’s not easy, but he finally manages to corner Hongjoong on a Tuesday, after a week of Hongjoong deftly maneuvering his schedule around Seonghwa’s. In terms of height, Seonghwa has at least seven centimeters on Hongjoong, and right when Hongjoong is least expecting it, Seonghwa pushes his way into Hongjoong’s personal space to tower over him, fingers curled around Hongjoong’s small wrist.
“Let go of me,” Hongjoong says.
“No way,” Seonghwa says. “You’re going to find some excuse to slip away and leave again.”
“I won’t,” Hongjoong says, but his eyes dart towards the closest exit in betrayal (their bedroom doorway), and Seonghwa tightens his grip on Hongjoong accordingly.
“Why do you keep avoiding me?” Seonghwa asks.
“I’m… not?” Hongjoong says, but he’s not looking Seonghwa in the eye, which means he’s hiding something. At the very least, he sounds less like he’s trying to shut Seonghwa out and mostly apologetic, but that’s most likely because Seonghwa’s currently got an iron grip on him. “I am not avoiding you.”
“That’s not a real answer and you know it,” Seonghwa whines. He hates that being twenty means talking in giant detours for the sake of tact, and he wishes that just for a moment, they could revert back to when they were twelve and all he had to do in order to feel close with Hongjoong was sneak his way into Hongjoong’s lap and ask for chin scratches. “I did something to upset you, and you’re not telling me what.”
Hongjoong looks defeated. It’s not an expression Seonghwa is used to seeing on him, if he’s even seen it before, and he wonders if he brings that much pain to Hongjoong, that Hongjoong feels this helpless because of Seonghwa.
“It’s not like that,” Hongjoong says with a sigh. “I’m not doing it maliciously.”
“Then for what non-malicious reason are you behaving like you’re in puberty again and trying to figure who you are separate from me?” Seonghwa asks, irked. “You figured your shit out back then, didn’t you?”
“I’m not sure,” Hongjoong says. His tail droops, fearfully, like he’s scared to admit something so disheartening. “I’m not sure if I did, Seonghwa.”
He sounds so small, and it strikes a painful chord in Seonghwa, because even if Hongjoong is physically small, he always fills up whatever room, whatever space he’s in with his easy charm and lionhearted passion and his pretty, pretty laugh.
So whatever’s eating away at him must be really bad, for Hongjoong to look like this. Seonghwa has finally learned to be calm and patient, but he’ll never be smart the way Hongjoong is, and he can only try his best to be by Hongjoong’s side as Hongjoong figures himself out again because Seonghwa can’t do it for him.
“Then what’s wrong?” Seonghwa asks, letting go of Hongjoong’s wrist so that he can take both of Hongjoong’s hands in his. “Let’s figure it out together. I don’t cling to you anymore, and I give you all the space you need, so what am I doing wrong that’s making you act like this? How can I help you, Hongjoong?”
“Maybe that’s what’s wrong,” Hongjoong says, face sullen. “You not clinging to me anymore. You choosing other people over me.”
Seonghwa frowns. Hongjoong’s not making any sense, because Seonghwa has always put Hongjoong in front of everyone, even himself. “What? When do I choose other people over you? You’re my best friend.”
“You did,” Hongjoong insists, and shakes his head as he decides it’s better not to voice whatever the rest of his grievance with Seonghwa is. “You...never mind.”
“No,” Seonghwa says. He’s finally gotten Hongjoong to start opening up, and he’s not going to let Hongjoong shove it all back in for the sake of pretenses. “You don’t get to say ‘never mind’ and brush me off.”
“I’m sorry,” Hongjoong says, licking his lips. “I’ve having an off week. I just need to put some space between us, and then I’ll be back to normal eventually.”
Ever since he was seven and Hongjoong had hissed at him, Seonghwa had vowed to himself that he would make Hongjoong happy, no matter what it took. Despite all Seonghwa has been through because of Hongjoong, Hongjoong’s never done anything to Seonghwa out of ill intentions, rather, it’s always been the opposite. He still saves up tuna on his plate for Seonghwa and is the first to notice whenever Seonghwa is falling sick, and he never hesitates to drop everything and help Seonghwa if he thinks Seonghwa needs the support. They’ve been through their bumps here and there, but at the end of the day, Hongjoong is a wonderful, beautiful person who deserves the whole world and more.
“I don’t want that,” Seonghwa says. “You’re in pain. I don’t want you to suffer alone and I don’t want there to be space between us.”
“You don’t know what you mean when you say stuff like that, Seonghwa,” Hongjoong says. “And how misleading it is.”
“I mean everything I say,” Seonghwa says, honestly. “Especially when it comes to you, Hongjoong. Because you’re the most important person in my life, and you should know by now that I can’t stand it when we’re not in sync.”
At that, Hongjoong’s eyes well up with tears, and Seonghwa doesn’t know what he’s said wrong.
And for a split second, the strange woman’s words come into his head again. You don’t want to get rid of that black kitten? Bad cats only bring bad luck.
But Seonghwa quickly pulls himself out of that rabbit hole, because he’s proved time and time again to everyone that he’s not bad luck, and he cups Hongjoong’s face in his hands. “Sorry, sorry, Hongjoong, don’t cry. Was it something I said?”
To avoid crying harder, Hongjoong squeezes his eyes shut and sniffles quietly.
“If I’m the most important person in your life, then why did you let that man kiss you?” he asks. “Why did you choose him over me?”
Seonghwa’s stomach drops as the words sink in.
Hongjoong must have seen him and Wooyoung.
There’s no way Seonghwa is interpreting this wrong, but he’s never…he never thought he’d be the one to hear words like that from Hongjoong. It’s always been Seonghwa who’s holding back, so why does Hongjoong sound like he’s the one who’s been secretly in love all these years?
When Seonghwa looks at Hongjoong, Hongjoong looks resentful and lonely and heartbroken all at once. It’s the same expression he had when Seonghwa had started taking cooking classes and meeting new people and accidentally neglecting Hongjoong, and it’s the same expression he had when he’d snapped at Seonghwa after his breakup with his only ever girlfriend.
Seonghwa’s heart is going to combust, and a million words and sentences run through his mind as he re-analyzes all the signals he’d previously discarded as Hongjoong not knowing any better. Perhaps Hongjoong did know better, and Seonghwa is just blind.
It makes sense, that of all the explanations Seonghwa could give or the sentences he could string together, he just utters the one word that’s the most important. “Hongjoong?”
“Understand already, idiot,” Hongjoong says. “Didn’t you promise me forever? But then you go and do shit like that—”
Seonghwa pulls Hongjoong into his arms, and Hongjoong hiccups in adorable confusion as his forehead bumps into Seonghwa’s jaw. Hongjoong smells like cologne, and salt, and home, and Seonghwa loves him so, so much, and he won’t ever let Hongjoong go.
“You’re misunderstanding me,” Seonghwa says, feeling just a bit touched that Hongjoong hardly ever cries, but he’s crying right now because he’s in love with Seonghwa and he thinks Seonghwa doesn’t love him back.
Hongjoong sniffs, and coughs. His eyelashes are wet and shiny with remnants of shed tears, and Seonghwa wants to kiss them. “What?”
“Wooyoung’s just a friend,” Seonghwa says.
“People who are just friends don’t kiss each other,” Hongjoong interrupts. “I saw you. Outside the movie theater. So—”
Seonghwa cradles the back of Hongjoong’s head with one hand, smoothing down the unruly tufts of hair that are sticking out because of Hongjoong’s distress. “Calm down for a second,” Seonghwa says, laughing. “Let me explain.”
“Don’t fucking laugh at me, you idiot,” Hongjoong says shrilly.
“Sorry, sorry, I don’t mean to,” Seonghwa says. “It’s just that this is the first time I feel like you’re younger than me.”
“I could totally be older than you,” Hongjoong says, with a defiant sniff. “I could be born on April 2nd, for all we know.”
“But we found you in November, and your fate as the younger, smaller kitten was sealed,” Seonghwa says, and before Hongjoong can hit him, he goes on. “Yesterday was the only date I’ve ever been on with anyone. You saw Wooyoung kiss me on the cheek, but I told him afterwards that I wasn’t going to go on any more dates with him.”
“What,” Hongjoong says, wiping at his eyes in annoyance, like he’s wasted energy by shedding tears. The shift in attitude is so abrupt that it makes Seonghwa snort. “Why not?”
“Because I’m in love with someone else.”
Hongjoong very quickly looks like he’s going to cry again.
“It’s someone who’s been with me since I was seven, someone who never made me feel like I was bad luck just because of the color of my fur,” Seonghwa replies, and Hongjoong’s lower lip trembles.
“It’s me?” Hongjoong asks, like he’s not sure whether he can trust Seonghwa when Seonghwa is already spelling it out for him. “You’re choosing me?”
“Yes,” Seonghwa says, and Hongjoong drops his head onto Seonghwa’s shoulder. “Because you’re my cat, Hongjoong, and I can’t give you to anyone else when I love you this much.”
Hongjoong makes a strangled noise, before he says, “I think all the stress I just went through shaved off ten years from my life.”
“How do you think I’ve felt all this time?” Seonghwa asks.
Hongjoong glares at him, redirecting his frustration at Seonghwa. “You’re the one who couldn’t take a hint. Or twenty.”
“A hint?” Seonghwa echoes. His heart rate starts to quicken. “You’re the one who told me you wanted to exist separately from me!”
“You—” Hongjoong huffs. “You pay attention to that one thing I said when I was fourteen, but you didn’t pay attention to anything after that!”
“You were behaving normally!” Seonghwa says.
“I groomed you in your sleep,” Hongjoong says. “I hate grooming anyone, so what could that possibly mean?”
Seonghwa’s jaw drops at the admission. He’d assumed that Hongjoong would keep that a secret to the grave, but clearly Hongjoong has no issues throwing his pride away in favor of proving his theory that Seonghwa’s an idiot.
Seonghwa laughs and says, “Yeah, that’s the problem, you did it while I was asleep, so how am I supposed to know what it means?!”
“I gave you a necklace,” Hongjoong says, pointing to Seonghwa’s necklace. “That I made. I crawled all over you to make a point, and you never got it. I slept with you to listen to your dumb heartbeat when I could have just slept by myself. Zero reaction, because you’re a fool—”
“You got a girlfriend,” Seonghwa points out, but he can’t help smiling, because it seems like whiny, angry Hongjoong is going to be a Thing now.
“Because I was trying to get over you!” Hongjoong says. “And don’t interrupt me, I’m not done. If someone got you snacks, you’d be all sparkly-eyed like ‘Hongjoong, try this dried fish ~Sehun hyung~ got me, isn’t he so wonderful?’ But when I gave you the necklace all you did was smile at me and put it on without realizing what it meant.”
Seonghwa furrows his brows. He guesses Yeosang was right, after all, about Hongjoong knowing what he was doing. “I was nervous! I thought you didn’t mean anything by it.”
“And then, when I told you I broke up with my girlfriend,” Hongjoong says, venomously, putting on his best imitation of Seonghwa’s gentle voice, “you said, ‘Wasn’t she good for you, Hongjoong~~~’ when you didn’t even care enough to meet her! You should have just stabbed me with a tree branch because the pain would have been the same.”
“I didn’t want to meet her because it would have hurt me too much,” Seonghwa says, holding in a laugh. There are too many conflicting emotions in his head right now, as he’s forced to revisit both good and bad memories in order to better understand what Hongjoong has been feeling. “I was more focused on giving you forever than hoping for you to return my feelings. I didn’t try to be mean on purpose, Hongjoong. I promise.”
Hongjoong settles down slightly at that. “I guess that’s… acceptable,” he says, eyes narrowed as he pulls at Seonghwa’s tail.
Seonghwa considers how to express the depth of his feelings, but it’s hard to verbalize devotion that’s been repressed for years, sunken in so deep that Seonghwa might float away into the horizon if he tries to take all of it out too quickly. “I’ve loved you forever,” he says, and Hongjoong pretends not to listen at first, because he’s probably mad that they made things more difficult for each other than necessary.
But his eyes inevitably dart to meet Seonghwa’s gaze when Seonghwa says, “When Joonmyun brought you back that day, you were dirty, and sad, and angry. You looked like you really hated me when I tried to groom you, but all I could think about was how beautiful your fur would be if someone cared enough to clean it for you, and that I wanted to be the one to make you smile even if it took weeks or months or years. And that’s never really changed, even now.”
Hongjoong pauses, making an ugly face reminiscent of Seonghwa’s own boxy smile before he lets out a horribly ungraceful noise, and headbutts Seonghwa. Hard.
Seonghwa is unsurprised that Hongjoong would lash out in such a way, but it doesn’t make the headbutt hurt any less. “Ow.” He winces. “Why are you hurting me?”
“Because you’re stupid, and I love you,” Hongjoong says irritably. “You oversized buffoon.”
“Just because I’m tall and handsome, doesn’t mean you can verbally attack me,” Seonghwa says, feeling like his face is going to split from how hard he’s smiling, and Hongjoong just glowers at him before headbutting Seonghwa in the chin again.
☽ ☽ ☽
Seonghwa is twenty when he finds out that Hongjoong, his favorite cat, his favorite soul, his favorite anything, is right in love with him back, and he wakes up to Hongjoong’s soft ears smushed against his cheek and Hongjoong’s tail tangled with his own. At first, Seonghwa thinks that maybe he’s dreaming because a black cat like him has never been this lucky, not when it comes to Hongjoong, but dream Hongjoong mumbles in a surly tone for Seonghwa to stop moving and just stay in bed, and Seonghwa realizes that this is real.
There are no longer any secrets between them, no giant life-sized lies, and Seonghwa slowly, carefully starts to believe in forever again, because forever no longer means a painful burden for him to shoulder in silence, but an anticipation of endless adventures together with Hongjoong to come.
☽ ☽ ☽
“Did you just sneeze on me?” Hongjoong asks, after a failed attempt to kiss Seonghwa, and Seonghwa turns as red as a beet even though Hongjoong is chuckling and not mad at all. He’s staring at Seonghwa so happily, and Seonghwa wants to ask Hongjoong to not look at him right now.
“I’m sorry,” Seonghwa says, squeakily. Knowing that Hongjoong likes him just as much as he likes Hongjoong doesn’t make things like kissing any less embarrassing, because it turns out that Seonghwa is the shyer one between them even if he’s always been the one to ask for hugs and cuddles. “You just got really close, and I’m nervous, and I didn’t mean to sneeze on you, really—”
“The rambling thing you do whenever you’re panicking is really cute,” Hongjoong says. His tail is curled around Seonghwa’s waist, and Seonghwa is going to explode. “Even if I don’t understand why you’re nervous, when we’ve known each other forever.”
“It’s because you’re too beautiful,” Seonghwa says, meaning it wholeheartedly. “And my heart can’t take it.”
“You’re so gross,” Hongjoong says, shoving Seonghwa in the shoulder, but he doesn’t seem to mind. After a brief moment of consideration, he adds, “Well, we’re stuck together because you promised me forever, so you’ll have time to get used to me getting real close.”
“Have mercy on me, please,” Seonghwa says, wheezing, and Hongjoong cackles in delight as he wedges his way into Seonghwa’s lap and kisses the tip of Seonghwa’s nose.