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Heart Vacancy

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“Each of us is born with a box of matches inside us but we can't strike them all by ourselves;”
― Laura Esquivel, Like Water for Chocolate

 

VACANCY: SHOP ASSISTANT (ROOM & MEALS PROVIDED)

 

That's what it had said on the sign in the gleaming glass window of Gossamer Books. Jongin dragged a knuckle across his forehead as he peered to the right. There were four other people out here with him - sitting on plastic chairs, tapping their feet, fiddling with their phones, glancing at their watches. Jongin was the only one who was still - the only one who just sat there, unmoving. He was also the only cat in a room full of humans and that always made him a little nervous - the tips of his ears flattening ever so slightly.

The door opened and an apathetic, freckled redhead walked out and sat down listlessly beside Jongin. He looked like he was in his early 20s, just like Jongin. Then the guy who was doing the hiring was standing in the doorway. He had a slight, wiry frame, and possessed an air of subtle efficiency about him in the quiet and swift way he moved and spoke. But it was his face that drew Jongin's attention most. His heart shaped face was almost prettily handsome with slightly dreamy looking almond shaped eyes and a small but attractive mouth.

"The final applicant is ... Kim Jongin?"

Jongin raised his hand and stood up in a single smooth movement, "That's me." And the man ushered him into the small office.

"Hi, I'm Junmyeon." The young man smiled at him from across the desk. It was a reserved smile though, Jongin realized - a guarded one that didn't quite reach his eyes.

"Hi Junmyeon, I'm Jongin and ... I won't lie to you, I really really need this job because I need a place to stay. I just moved here from Newhaven. I don't have a lot of qualifications but I'm very trustworthy and I'm not afraid of hard work. These are references from the last few places I worked." Jongin got everything out in one breath before he had the chance to lose his nerve.

"I was actually going to ask you who your favorite writers are. That's one of my criteria. Anyone I hire will have to know books, and actually like reading books." Junmyeon chuckled, fine laughter lines making his face seem worlds less distant.

"Oh. Well that was embarrassing." Jongin said sheepishly, "Let me try this again. My favorite writers are ... Paulo Coelho and John Irving."

"And your favorite books by them?"

"By the River Piedra I Sat and Wept and The World According to Garp. But my favorite book by any writer is Catcher in the Rye." Jongin replied without hesitation and Junmyeon nodded with what Jongin hoped was approval, before scribbling some things on a notepad. Junmyeon flipped through Jongin's resume and asked him pertinent questions about his previous jobs, listening to Jongin's answers with interest.

Junmyeon studied Jongin quietly. Furry, silvery gray ears emerged from amongst strands of fine, straight pewter colored hair. The tall, tanned young man before Junmyeon was extremely handsome with heavy-lidded, somewhat catlike wide eyes and masculine jaw. Not that Junmyeon cared that the final applicant was deeply attractive. Junmyeon didn't care about much at all one way or the other, and he kept reminding himself of that as he stated matter-of-factly, "You're a cat."

"Is that a problem?" Jongin tried to keep the edge out of his voice but he wasn't sure he succeeded. The tip of his silvery long tail twitched nervously alongside his right thigh and he was glad that Junmyeon couldn't see it with the desk in the way.

"I've never hired or worked with a cat so I just need to know if you have special dietary needs or employment criteria. I just ... don't want to get things wrong. I mean of course I'll be doing the necessary paperwork with the Labour Department later on, but it would help if you were able to guide me a little to begin with."

"Paperwork? Wait, does that mean I'm hired?"

"Yeah, I guess it does. Can you start tomorrow?" Junmyeon gave a reserved smile so Jongin gave him a polite and controlled 'thank you' in return. But inside he was actually a tangled mess of relief and elation - relief because he suddenly had a roof over his head, and elation because ... well, he had a really good looking boss.

What more could a cat ask for, really? Jongin thought as the tip of his tail curled around his left thigh in contentment.

-----

Jongin had spent most of the following morning studying the layout of the small store - the different bookstore sections, the stockroom, the kinds of authors and novels they sold in the store. And Junmyeon had given him a quick tutorial on how to use the cash register. Jongin had watched and listened carefully as Junmyeon patiently showed him all the steps involved with his pale, slender hands, and gave instructions in that serious, soft spoken voice of his. Jongin thought he could really become accustomed to those sure hands and that calming voice. Desperately, he tried not to stare as the sunbeams pouring in from the skylight above bathed Junmyeon's hair and skin in bewitching shades of gold.

There was only one other worker in the store - it wasn't a very big store after all. He drove the van for what rare pick-ups and deliveries of books Junmyeon required, but other than that, he had to do the same things in the store that Jongin did. His name was Xiumin and he had a wicked sense of humor that went with his mischievous face, with its pixie-like slanted eyes, expressive eyebrows and easy grin. He'd been working here since the dawn of time he joked - the dawn of time being when Junmyeon set up the bookstore three years ago.

"How come you don't live in the bookstore like me?" Jongin had asked him as they sorted books in the Modernist Novels section.

"Well, I did for two years. But then I met Luhan. He's a sports writer with The Bakersville Herald, and we share an apartment five blocks from here. Before you, there was Yixing, but he left a week ago. He was offered a scholarship to study dance in Chicago. Technically we're supposed to give three weeks' notice but Yixing never expected to get the offer and they wanted him to register last week. It's his dream so Junmyeon told him he should just go and he'd find a replacement somehow."

"So the two of you have been managing on your own for a week?"

"It was fine. This place isn't exactly tough to maintain and Junmyeon paid me extra for those days. There's been a steady stream of applicants daily but Junmyeon just couldn't settle on anyone. He says people hardly read anymore and he's particular that everyone who works here actually likes reading. Plus this is a literary bookstore so I guess that's kinda understandable."

"Oh, I love books,"

"I'm sure that's why he hired you." Xiumin said but his laughing eyes and teasing tone hinted at something else.

-----

"I can help with that," Jongin entered the kitchenette.

"You know your way around the kitchen? Xiumin could start a fire in the kitchen just boiling eggs and Yixing wasn't much better. After a while I just told them to do the dishes and I'd take care of the cooking."

"I can do dishes too," Jongin's amused chuckle was husky and low and shook up Junmyeon's equilibrium in ways he didn't wish to acknowledge. Casually, Jongin seated himself across the kitchen table from his boss, picked up the vegetable peeler and started shaving the skin of a potato off in one long, unbroken curl.

"You ...?"

"I was a kitchen hand at a Korean restaurant for eight months when I was 18."

"Your resume lists 6 different jobs in 6 different towns." It wasn't worded like a question but Jongin knew an answer was required.

"Oh. Yeah, I move around quite a bit. I guess I'm looking for the right job and the right place and when I find it, I'll stop. Stop moving, I mean." Jongin watched Junmyeon's face as he peeled the second potato.

"I hope you find that place. It must be tiring to keep moving. I've lived here all my life and I can't imagine uprooting all the time. My books are my home." Junmyeon confided before he realized what he was doing. As awareness crept in, he suddenly looked uncomfortable, like he'd revealed too much about himself and he quickly turned all his attention back to the leeks he’d been slicing.

"I hope I find the right place soon as well. Moving around all the time is tiring - it takes a little more out of you each time you move. It's just that my parents passed on when I was 16 and so there's nothing to keep me tied to my hometown. I left when I was 18 - it's seems like such a long time ago I feel like I barely remember the place. I suppose your parents are close by?" Jongin probed tentatively. He knew he shouldn't but he just found Junmyeon too fascinating.

"Yeah, they do live close by," Junmyeon chuckled. Bakersville is not exactly a big town. They drop by sometimes. And Umma gives me a huge tub of kimchi every fortnight. If I forget to pick it up, she will insist on dropping it off. God forbid I should ever run out of kimchi. As far as she's concerned, having no kimchi in your home is the equivalent of a full-scale natural disaster." Junmyeon joked and they both laughed companionably. Tempted as he was to ask if there was a boyfriend or a girlfriend in the picture, Jongin held his tongue ... for now. He didn't want to spook Junmyeon - he seemed like a very private person.

“So what’s for dinner?” Jongin asked as he reached for a carrot and began peeling it with consummate skill.

“I'm a pretty vanilla cook. I usually make really simple dishes," Junmyeon smiled apologetically, "Tonight it's beef and vegetable stew. But Umma's kimchi is spectacular so that should make up for how unexciting my stew is." He said in a half attempt at humor and Jongin laughed, a shallow dimple appearing in his left cheek. Junmyeon suddenly had a strong urge to trace the little depression with his fingertip. But instead, he gripped his knife just a fraction tighter and quartered a big onion.

Although Junmyeon had done the actual cooking of the stew, Jongin had assisted with preparation and washing up. Junmyeon was used to having the entire kitchen as his personal workspace and it rattled him a little to have someone with as much physical presence as Jongin invading it. But Jongin’s presence wasn’t intrusive so much as it was unsettling. Junmyeon was deeply unsettled by the cat – he just couldn’t figure out why. He’d always shared the apartment above his store because it didn’t make sense to have an unoccupied room and to cook for just one person. So he’d always collected a nominal amount for groceries and rental in exchange for the company of a single employee.

Xiumin and Yixing had been extroverted and chatty, and had added much color and energy to Junmyeon's dull and quiet existence. Yet all their noise combined had never distracted Junmyeon as much as Jongin’s calm, efficient presence was doing right now. It almost reminded him of how on edge he used to feel when he'd lived with his ex a lifetime ago - before he'd opened Gossamer Books and found something else to live for. With fierce determination, Junmyeon shoved all thoughts of his ex and their pathetic failed love story out of his mind as he poured the carrots and celery Jongin had diced earlier into the bubbling stew gravy. Some memories were just not worth reliving, Junmyeon sighed as he stirred the stew with a wooden spoon.

Jongin's ears, which were far more sensitive than human ears, picked up on the little sound of frustration and the emotional ache embedded in it. He wondered what ailed Junmyeon and he worried for this stranger who'd just become his boss and roommate overnight. He seemed so terribly ... alone.

But Jongin was here now.

-----

They talked about books and some of their favorite shows over beef and vegetable stew served with Junmyeon's Umma's kimchi and perfectly cooked, glossy white Korean short grain rice. It wasn't exactly riveting conversation but it was nice and just impersonal enough for near strangers to share over simple, home cooked food. After dinner, Jongin immediately cleared the table and began washing the dishes.

"I'll rinse and dry," Junmyeon announced firmly as he draped a cheerful yellow dish towel over his shoulder and stood beside Jongin. The kitchen was cramped at the best of times but Jongin's broad-shouldered, long-limbed frame truly filled it up in a way Yixing and Xiumin had never done.

They stood side-by-side, shoulders and hips almost touching as they worked together quietly. And somewhere along the way, their elbows brushed against each other and they both drew back slightly - startled by the warm contact. Then awkwardly, they both got back to the task of washing and rinsing and drying the dishes. Junmyeon had been surprised at how hot Jongin's skin had been - like he was running a temperature.

"Jongin, are you feeling feverish?"

"No, no I'm fine. I'm just ... Cats have a higher core body temperature than humans." Jongin explained and Junmyeon nodded. What Jongin left out was that his temperature was higher even than his usual. He had deliberately omitted the fact that when a cat was attracted to another person - cat or human - their core temperature went up by an additional 30 degrees Fahrenheit. No, Jongin didn't think Junmyeon really needed or wanted to know that about his new tenant. Then all his thoughts scattered abruptly as he heard a brittle crash. Shards of broken white porcelain littered the floor and both men dropped to their knees swiftly to start picking up the pieces. Huddled together in that confined space, Jongin's physical instincts were harder to rein in and he groaned inwardly as his silver-haired tail curled slowly and sensually around Junmyeon's wrist. Jongin drew back his tail as soon as he could but it was too late. Junmyeon had felt it, if his stunned expression was any indication. He knew.

"I'm sorry, Junmyeon. That was an accident, I ... It won't happen again."

"It's nothing, don't worry. It was nothing." Junmyeon smiled uneasily and turned back to sweeping up the remains of the plate he'd dropped so inelegantly earlier on. And as he held the dustpan over the bin and tipped the broken pieces in, Junmyeon tried to convince himself Jongin's touch had been nothing. He tried to convince himself that his heart wasn't racing and that his skin wasn't stretched tight and alive with sensation.

-----

That night, Junmyeon lay in bed, his eyes fixed on the stars in the obsidian sky as his mind kept wandering back to that incident in the kitchen. It was his habit to pull open the drapes every night after he switched off the lights. Then, with his bedroom enveloped in darkness, Junmyeon would gaze dreamily at the myriad pinpoints of light as he drifted to sleep. But tonight, the stars seemed to mock him as he tried to persuade himself that Jongin's touch hadn't affected him, and that he didn't want to feel Jongin's tail brush against his skin again. It was an hour before his body finally surrendered to sleep, haunted by images of a beautiful, silver-haired cat ...