Born on the 14th of January, in 1994, Jongin knows he's bad luck. One four is bad enough, but two... He isn't a popular child among his relatives. He's pleasant enough, but his birth, they gossip and sigh. Visiting them in the country, everyone knew his birthdate, and while they weren't mean, he did spend a lot of time alone and developed a great friendship with books. All of his cousins are older or younger, and no one was born on a 4th, 14th, or 24th in a year with a four or the month of April, the fourth month of the year.
It's easier in the city, where superstitions are nearly nonexistent and considered something fun, like seeing a shaman for a fortune telling.
After a lifetime of hospital visits and staying home sick every holiday, Jongin spends his fourteenth birthday quietly at the park near his home, sitting on a cold bench with some comics and a young black cat with a smiling muzzle.
“You should be careful, you know,” he says to it. “Winter is really weird this year, but bad things happen around me, too. I hope your paws don't freeze to the bench.” As if taking precautions, the cat climbs onto Jongin's lap and curls up very contentedly.
Every rustle of dry shrubbery or crunch of snow, he expects a branch to break and bury him in snow or for the wind to pick up, steal his books, and lead him to losing his boots while trying to catch them and end up with pneumonia.
It's happened before. It's all happened before. Anything bad that can happen, will. It's his life motto. His mother usually tries to cheer him up.,What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. He can't find it in him to be grateful, though. His classmates have long since gotten over the commodity of a boy who's broken just about every bone in his body, and no one even asks when he's absent any more. Jongin's just sick again. I'll collect homework for him.
Someone decided a hobby is what Jongin needed. Something to get him out of the house, away from his sulking solitude and books, and among people his own age. Dancing is pretty fun, when he can keep his feet under him and his arms from windmilling about and striking other students into each other like dominoes. He faked sick at the most recent Christmas show after a girl fell off the stage during practice and sprained her arm. She'd tripped over Jongin's water bottle which had rolled away from him.
Zitao is the newest kid in Jongin’s dance class, originally from China. He’s very smiley, really sweet, and mixes his Korean and Chinese, which other kids tease him for before correcting him. Jongin likes him well enough, especially after Zitao nearly goes to pieces over photos of Jongin’s dogs.
They’re friends, he guesses. Friendly enough.Jongin tries to give him fair warning about the accidents he causes, but Zitao never believes him, and nothing ever happens when he's around. It is nice to know that older kids aren’t all like Taemin, who teases Jongin a lot although they’re just a year apart in age, or like Jongin’s siblings, who also tease and torment him.
The day after they first met, Zitao holds out his hand and gives Jongin the tab from a can. “It's good luck,” he informs proudly. “I found it in the road, and not a single car ran over it. No bikes, no trucks, nothing. It's really lucky!”
Jongin thanks him and puts it in his backpack, forgetting about it soon after.
Sometimes, Zitao says or observes weird things, and Jongin usually just accepts them as something Zitao grew up with; he has no idea what China is like, but when he keeps finding things in his pockets—feathers, pretty little rocks, bits of smooth glass, even scales???—he’s really curious. Maybe they are good luck charms like Zitao casually says, maybe they’re not. Where are they coming from, and how are they getting into his pants pockets and backpack without him noticing?
Usually, he’ll carry all the random bits of “garbage” (according to his older-middle brother, as if he can really talk about carrying around trash with the state of his bedroom and backpack), but Jongin’s mom cleans out his things without saying anything one night, and he goes to school without the “lucky charms” the next morning.
Jongin skateboards by himself from his home to the bottom of the hill where he'll turn right and wait at a bus stop in the middle of the sidewalk. He's done it tens of times with no issues at all and few complaints from others out at the same time, going to work or school or shopping or wherever.
He waves at the friendly black cat and adjusts the strap on his helmet so it doesn't pinch him so much..
A strong gust of wind blows a trashcan into the street; Jongin swerves to avoid it and loses his balance, falling off of his skateboard and into the street, rolling the rest of the way downhill to the intersection just as the traffic light changes.
He's fine, overall. Bruised, with scraped palms and knees beneath his torn uniform pants, but no broken bones. An older boy had run out after seeing him fall and stood in the middle of the cars until his friend could pick Jongin up and carry him to the sidewalk.
Zitao visits him at home, after he returns from the hospital. Jongin's skateboard and helmet, showing a crack where it had hit the pavement, sit beside his bed, and Zitao starts to cry.
“I'm so sorry, Jongin!” he wails. “I don’t get how it happened. My—” He hiccups. “My charms should have worked! Maybe the cricket leg was bad; it wasn't fresh, exactly, but it wasn't like it'd been dead for all that long. And that marble was the first one that crow had ever stolen but didn't have a scratch on it! It was perfect...”
“Do you mean the stuff that showed up in my pockets? Taozi, did you put them there?” His friend nods miserably, picking apart a tissue. “I dunno what happened to it all, but it wasn't in my bag this morning. I'm okay, though. Mom just wants me to stay home today. I can't really do much with my hands like this, anyway.” He holds out his hands, palms raw but clean from the road rubble. He's rather proud of himself for not crying when the doctor dug it all out.
“It shouldn't have happened, anyway. You're too nice. I know what it's like to be seen different, and I was just trying to help.”
“Help with what?”
Zitao rubs his nose with the tissue pieces and sniffles. “You're bad luck, Jongin. I've never seen such awful luck, ever since you were a baby, right?”
Jongin's heard his mom tell stories about her pregnancies and how Jongin was the most difficult to deliver. Refusing a cesarean nearly killed her. As an infant, he slipped down between his dad and the sofa during a nap. When he was four years old, someone left the oven turned on and open while he was strapped in his high chair. He's fallen off his bike and skateboard more times than he can count, and if there's an open cabinet or closet, something falls when he passes by. He's spent a lifetime cheating death, and he's barely fourteen.
“Taozi,” Jongin says, “do you know magic?”
Posters and ads and TV show magic as a country thing. Jongin has never seen a witch before, that he's aware of, and the city doesn’t need magic, because of their advanced technology. Magic is something old grandparents stubbornly hang onto in the changing times. According to the media.
Zitao's still miserable but nods sulkily. “Of course I know magic. I'm a cat.”
“Can you show me? I promise I won't tell.”
“Promise you won't laugh.”
“I promise,” Jongin replies solemnly.
His friend shrugs and sits on Jongin's rug. He disappears in an instant, shrunk down to a sleek black cat with glossy fur, smiling muzzle, and very green eyes.
“It's you!” He leans over to hold out his hand, nearly falling out of bed. Zitao leaps up onto the bed and digs his claws into the blankets, nearly getting dragged with his friend.
Jongin regains his balance and scoots a little closer to the wall. “I thought you'd be, like, a big cat. A tiger or something.” Zitao yowls lowly, ears back. He's handsome no matter what cat he is. He didn't choose a plain black housecat.
Jongin carefully runs his fingers down Zitao's spine, smiling when his rear pops up with a straight tail. After his fourteenth birthday, this black cat's been hanging around and bringing him gifts. Zitao must have seen that he didn't keep them, so he started putting them right in Jongin's pockets and backpack. He'd thought it was strange to go so long without tripping down the stairs or slipping in the shower, but now he thinks it's thanks to Zitao.
He'll have to find a safe place for the charms, where his mom won't find them.
Zitao invites himself to sit carefully on Jongin's lap. He tucks his paws beneath him and presents his chin, his favorite place to be pet.
“Is this the only cat you can be?” Zitao opens an eye to glare at him. “Just asking...” A tiger would be really cool is all. He rubs his eye with a fist and squints at the coal black cat curled in a perfect circle on his lap. “I guess this does suit you, though. You're clingy and whine a lot. I can't imagine a tiger being like that. Not that I've met any.” Zitao’s nearly asleep, eyes curved up in contented crescents as he purrs with every pass of Jongin’s hand down his back. The only sign that he’s listening to Jongin’s musing is the claws dipping into Jongin’s thigh.
“Hyung.” Zitao purrs louder. “Thanks for trying to look out for me.
“It's lucky I met you.”