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a soft cage

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The roomba whirs to life at its scheduled 2pm sweep. Aron tucks his feet under him as the machine passes beneath. The clack of the typewriter becomes the only accompaniment to the robots hard work.

Aron pauses. Picks up his phone to glance at the notifications. No text from Minhyun. He stretches and wishes it was the weekend already where they would have their 3pm walks. It's one thing to stroll through the park as a human: observing joggers, other owners and their pets, children who laugh in the afternoon breeze. Maybe sit by the river or have a cup of coffee or wait for the setting sun to dye the sky in pastel hues. It is another thing entirely to frolic as a dog. The excitement that courses through your veins as your legs take you as far as you can go, not knowing if your heart or your legs will give out first. The exasperated shouts of the human lumbering behind you — pathetically out of breath. But you love him anyway so you run back towards him and circle him a few times before he gathers his breath and can continue after you. The children who coo as you strut and give you the best belly rubs a dog could ask for ( a bit rough but its ok. once you get home the human, who has been holding in his jealousy, gives you the gentlest tummy rub that makes you the happiest canine alive ). The other humans who shower you with compliments as you walk by. It’s a good life. An even better one when the human remembers to bring a frisbee along and your world narrows into that one small plastic plate. It’s a simple life — one without worry. One Aron would like to dive into to escape opening his email inbox and counting the number of rejections. 

But life must trudge on. No one is there to pick you up when your feet tire after running too much. Just a small but fond tsk to chastise you for expending all your energy in one go. You rest your chin against his shoulder and see the world as if from your human height as he runs a hand through your fur, hating how your tail indicates how much you enjoy it. “Aron-ah, let's go home,” is all he says because it would be weird to call your corgi hyung. Your tail thumps a little harder and Minhyun chuckles in response, nuzzling his cheek against your head.

Maybe Aron should ask for a walk this weekend. He muses as he stores his typewriter away in the case Minhyun had got him along with the typewriter for his birthday last year. It’s become second nature after a while. Putting things back where they belong to minimize the scrambling of trying to find something. Keeps it from getting dusty, Minhyun had also said when he insisted on Aron putting it away after each use instead of displaying it.

Things have fallen into routine. Habits are picked up along the way.

Minhyun schedules his life meticulously. Aron has learned how to live with it.

The first few months were hard. He was afraid Minhyun was going to get fed up and kick him out but Minhyun never did. And so life moves on.

No text means Minhyun isn’t staying late or coming home early. Which means Aron has a few hours to himself. But if he does want to ask for a favor...

Aron decides to make galbi jjim for dinner.

 

As the beef short ribs get braised, Aron decides to finish the other chores of the day.

He runs the lint roller down the sofa and over the bed, picking up stray strands of fur that have fallen in this morning’s romping. In Aron’s defense, the apartment becomes a lot larger in a compact body. Besides Minhyun doesn’t seem to mind too much when he tugs on his pant leg or nuzzles against his ankle to get him to stay a little longer.

He sorts the laundry out by color. There’s still a formerly white shirt stained pink somewhere in the depths of Minhyun’s closet. Aron swears Minhyun keeps it out of pettiness to remind Aron the importance of sorting clothes by color.

Minhyun’s playlist churns out tunes in the background as Aron mindlessly folds and sorts clean laundry, smiling occasionally when he finds his taste in music winding its way into Minhyun’s palette.

Aron dumps the dried clothes onto the bed. Minhyun has a specific way of folding clothes and Aron long adopted the method. Not that it matters anyway, he thinks as he puts the clean clothes back into the closet — their closet. The sweater and cotton denim pants Aron has on today are all technically Minhyun’s. But no one keeps track anymore.

It’s always the little things that add up isn’t it?

Minhyun growing fond of the body wash Aron normally uses and switching over to “save space” so the bottles lining the shower wouldn't be in the tens or twenties.

Aron showering the moment he comes home or at least making sure to clean himself up before making himself home on Minhyun’s bed.

Aron learning to enjoy Minhyun’s trashy taste in movies and Minhyun finally watching the classics. 

Minhyun respecting Aron's space ( “study” which is just a desk in Minhyun’s actual study ) and not touching or organizing it no matter how much he itches to.

Aron ending up reading more of Minhyun’s collection of books than Minhyun has. ( Minhyun has a bad habit of buying books he thinks are interesting to read later but ends up never getting to them because of busy schedules. ) And then triages them out on what Minhyun would enjoy most or what he would like to discuss when Minhyun finally has a vacation.

Then there are the little rituals that end up being built over time.

Minhyun getting used to having his meals being taken care of instead of eating out. Enjoying breakfast rather than finding it a waste of time.

Late night television cuddling where Aron finds his head resting in Minhyun’s lap as Minhyun runs his fingers through Aron’s hair. Almost as stress relief, commenting on how soft it is. Never realizing that Aron purposefully makes sure to wash his hair before these evening moments.

Full moon nights where Aron gets ruled by the silver light, growing a little feral, and Minhyun giving him space or a warm hug when needed.

Rainstorms when Aron hides under Minhyun’s covers in his corgi form and Minhyun stroking him gently until he falls asleep and the claps of thunder no longer startles him awake.

Hands that find their way to each other, finding comfort, keeping contact.

Those down trodden days where Aron lets himself grow a little unkept. Only doing the bare minimum like showering. And Minhyun doesn't complain. Doesn’t even comment on the growing shadow over Aron’s face. Merely runs a hand over it, cupping it in his palms and giving Aron a smile. It’s warm and encouraging. Aron can't help but lean into the touch. Minhyun doesn’t say things like it must have been hard or other empty words of trying to understand. Merely a promise to be there when Aron needs him. And to remain there even after he finishes talking.

How they celebrate good news and important days by going out for a meal. Wearing something nice, going to a restaurant with an ambient atmosphere, eating food Aron will attempt to recreate.

And even this:

The door sounds with sharp beeps as the password is entered. Aron glances at the time after he sets down the spoon he used to taste the galbi jjim. Right on the dot. A smile finds its way onto his face.

The door swings open and before Minhyun has time to set down his briefcase or take off his shoes, Aron had already tackled him into a hug. Aron still remembers the first time he did it by accident. The moon was waxing. He had good news to share and Minhyun had been gone for a long day. So excitement of him being home swept Aron away. Minhyun had seemingly frozen back then. Toppled to the ground by Aron’s weight and excitement. He smelled confused. Shame threatened to eat Aron alive and an apology and promise to never do this again almost made its way out of Aron’s mouth when Minhyun pulled Aron back in — crushed him in his embrace.

So it persists till this day.

Down to the fact Minhyun still takes in a deep breath as if breathing Aron’s scent in. A human's nose like his is far too weak for that but Aron thinks it’s to remind himself that he’s home. The day’s burden and responsibility can be shed.

Aron does the same, sniffing out of habit.

Today he growls. The scent of cologne clings to Minhyun’s blazer. Far too close to just be something picked up in proximity. Aron had picked this up a few times. He narrows his eyes.

“New boyfriend?” Aron asks, trying to swallow down his bitterness but knows it is futile. Jealousy is almost openly stated in his tone.

“No,” Minhyun says, almost offended. “Just this coworker of mine who gets overly friendly,” Minhyun says. Far too quick for Aron’s liking and he pulls his lips into a pout as Minhyun breaks the hug and hurriedly takes his shoes off. “You know,” Minhyun glances at Aron, “the guy who transferred from the branch in France.”

“Mhmm,” Aron sounds, unconvinced. Not that he has any right to be accusatory or possessive but — curse dogs and their attachment issues.

“Is that galbi jjim I smell?” Minhyun asks, desperately switching the subject. Aron let’s him.

Minhyun walks to the kitchen but not before placing his briefcase down by his study. He picks up the spoon Aron was using, about to dive into the pot when Aron gives his hand a little whack. “Only eat after you’ve showered.”

Minhyun pouts.

Aron remains unbudging. “Can’t feed you when you smell like a stranger,” he plays it off as a joke.

“Fine,” Minhyun concedes.

This time Aron lets Minhyun have a little piece, after blowing on it to make sure it doesn’t scald Minhyun’s tongue, and Minhyun walks away with a smug expression on his face.

Aron gets changed while Minhyun showers. Pulling the brown sweater off and throwing it into the laundry basket.

Aron can’t help but dwell.

Minhyun had smelled nervous and embarrassed when Aron asked about the lingering cologne. Maybe even a little shy.

Aron sinks to his knees.

Is he impeding on Minhyun’s life?

He’s thought about it before, early on into this strange arrangement of theirs. He would move out the moment Minhyun asked him to. Prepared himself for the worst but it never came. So he sunk into this sort of comforting lull — made a home out of what isn’t his to begin with.

It’s not like the notion hadn’t crossed his mind. But every time it comes up, Aron shoves it deep down because Minhyun deserves better than to be with someone who doesn’t have his life together. Who is freeloading and using a friend’s kindness.

And what if he’s confusing these feelings that might just be a canine’s nature with something romantic? It wouldn’t be fair to Minhyun either.

Aron rubs his eyes.

Life would be a lot easier if he was either a dog or a human. Especially if he was just a pet. He could stay here forever and love unconditionally without dissecting it apart.

The hiss of the shower ceases. Aron takes in a shaky breath before heading out to the kitchen to ladle a bowl of galbi jjim for Minhyun.

 

 

 

It’s been two and a half years since Aron moved in with Minhyun.

Minhyun reminisces as he scrubs his hair clean with shampoo. The embarrassment from earlier slowly seeping out of his system. 

“Maybe I should have interviewed for a company position,” Aron laments as he finishes his second bottle of soju. Jonghyun pats his back sympathetically. “It’s impossible to freelance without connections.”

His cheeks are dusted in pink. Probably in part the alcohol and predominantly from the ten minute long rant. Minhyun flips over the pork that’s being grilled and places a slice of meat on Aron’s plate.

“Now I can’t even afford rent,” Aron continues. “Maybe I should just live as my dog form. Get someone to adopt me. Be their pet. I’ll get free housing and meals.”

Minki makes a face.

“What?” Aron snaps, “dog food doesn’t taste that bad.”

“Can’t be a big family with kids though,” Aron continues, “they poke and prod too much. A nice young couple would be nice. Or an elderly one. Maybe someone single...”

“You could come live with me,” Minhyun finds himself saying at the thought of Aron in his corgi form contently curled in some random woman’s lap.

He freezes when he feels four pairs of eyes on him.

He can feels a blush creeping onto his face and bleeding into his ears.

“As a pet, I mean,” Minhyun quickly says, returning to the task of grilling meat.

“Hey,” Dongho protests, “why Aron hyung? I asked to room with you before.”

“You’re a cat,” Minhyun deadpans, “and I’m allergic.”

Before Dongho can say anything further, Minhyun reemphasizes: “as a pet.”

Aron quirks a brow. “Is that a challenge?”

Minhyun shrugs.

It wasn’t. It was just Minhyun’s excuse to be a little closer. Even now his ears burn as he remembers how his heart stuttered and he had to swallow before acting so nonchalant.

It was difficult in the beginning. Far too awkward. Minhyun thought Aron would find it unbearable and move out. 

But Aron has far more patience and insight than anyone gives him credit for. As if picking up on their strained relationship, Aron transforms into a corgi to tease out laughs from Minhyun. Or adhering to Minhyun’s comment of living with him as a pet by acting cute without any semblance of shame.

Minhyun is grateful. Heart still swells at the attempts Aron has made. He lets the water run over him as he thinks about the dumb expressions and aegyo like voices Aron has done.

Makes him even more embarrassed for having Aron think that Minhyun would be into a French man who didn’t understand boundary violations. That was their welcome home ritual. One where Minhyun absorbed the sensation of coming home that came along with the detergent that had woven itself into the fabric of their clothes and Aron’s all encompassing warmth. Only to be rudely interrupted by a stranger’s ill placed affection.

Minhyun shuts off the water after rinsing the soap suds off.

It’s okay, he thinks. They will have tomorrow and the day after that.

He hopes this arrangement of theirs will never end.

 

Minhyun arranges his pillows in a way that provide comfort as he reads before bed, both stomach and heart content from dinner. The page doesn’t turn. He barely even reads a word. His eyes trail Aron.

The first time Aron asked to share a bed, he rested his chin on the foot of Minhyun’s bed and pulled his lower lip out into a pout. Whining as he looked pitiful in the dog bed that was too small for him. Minhyun had bought the largest pet bed for Aron who had managed to sleep soundly in it for two weeks. ( Minhyun had photos in his phone where the corgi snored away with his paws pointing towards the ceiling. )

Sometimes I need to stretch out, Aron had said, eyes imploring. But all Minhyun could think about was a sprawled out human Aron with a patch of stomach peeking out from under his shirt. Or even worse — arms and legs wrapped around Minhyun, guaranteeing sleepless nights from here on out.

You can have the sofa. Minhyun remains unbudging.

But it is cold outside, Aron persuades, and your bed is so big...

It’s not like Minhyun ever had the capacity to tell Aron no. Just like how his clothes are shared with Aron, so too does the bed.

Despite Aron’s promise to respect Minhyun’s space, he slowly encroaches, chalking it up to his canine instincts. It was so lonely, he said as he shuffled closer. Head coming to rest against Minhyun’s torso as his arms wound their way around Minhyun’s waist. Minhyun didn’t know what to do with his hands but run them through Aron’s hair ( like he always dreamed of doing ), heart stuttering in his chest and hoping Aron’s keen ears doesn’t pick it up. ( They do. ) Waits until the breaths become more even and paced does he dare run his hand along Aron’s face, exploring. Eventually he’s lulled into sleep. Eventually, he gets spooned. And instead of being kept awake, he finds the warmth and weight comforting enough to fall into a deep and dreamless sleep.

Minhyun can’t help but wonder if his presence does the same for Aron. He has his doubts but still can’t help but hope.

The next day Minhyun had yelled that if Aron wanted to sleep in a bed he had to change his showering schedule. The bed is meant for a place to rest. To be clean. Aron sulked his way to the shower and came back with his hair wet and dripping. Minhyun only sighed and dried it for him.

Things have long settled since then. Aron has adjusted. Morning showers only for big days where he needs to be somewhere or see someone.

Now he shuffles into bed, smelling clean. Glasses on his face and stubble peeking its way through skin.

Today, however, Aron doesn’t hook his chin on Minhyun’s shoulder, arm finding its usual spot on Minhyun’s waist. Doesn’t read over his shoulder, stubble scratching against skin as he mouths the words silently. Today, he takes his glasses off and sets them by his bedside table. Today, he makes himself small like the first night Minhyun had allowed him onto his bed.

Aron lies on his stomach, distributing his weight. His arms are crossed, elbows a bit wider than Minhyun’s hips, chin resting on top of his wrist. 

“Throughout history they called us werecreatures, demibeasts, hybrids,” Aron says. Minhyun doesn’t look up from his book, but he wasn’t reading to begin with. “We came in all shapes and sizes. Humans feared us so they hunted us.”

Minhyun looks out the window.

“I’m glad I no longer live in such a time.”

It is a new moon. There are no clouds in sight.

Which means that this is not ruled by the waxing and waning of the moon. Aron’s eyes are clear, without that glint of silver. Tone even and not perturbed by heavy breathing.

Minhyun closes the book and sets it down.

“But ever since I was little I was told there was only one way to live. The right one. The one where I hid my other instincts and tried to behave as a human would,” Aron says. Minhyun imagines a younger Aron, trying hard to stay still, looking out the classroom window and itching to run free.

He laughs, wry. “I would have to be on my best behavior. Be better than the other human students because if I slipped up they would blame my beastly nature.”

Minhyun can’t help but reach out. Fingers  hesistant against Aron’s bangs, seeking for permission. There’s a slight nod where Aron brushes against the pads of Minhyun’s fingers as a reply. It’s followed by a smile so sad something within Minhyun aches.

“Sometimes I wondered if life would be easier if I just lived as a dog. I would be loved unconditionally. Even if I didn’t behave no one would truly mind. They would just laugh about it or call me cute. Worst case scenario they would just cluck their tongue.” This time the laugh that follows sounds more natural. “I would have so many friends.” Minhyun thinks of all the regulars at the park and the sniffing and tail wagging ritual that ensues. A chuckle slips past his lips.

“And I would love them back unconditionally. My world would be small but simple. I’d watch over them and their family. Grow old together...”

“Wouldn’t that be lonely?” Minhyun asks as his fingers card through Aron’s hair, pads skimming across the scalp the way he likes it.

“You think?” Aron replies as he rolls over onto his back.

Minhyun slides down too. Repositioning himself to that his pillow supports the weight of his head as he stares up at the ceiling.

“Maybe. But it would have been a good life,” Aron concludes. “Unconditional love is as good as it gets.”

“It’s part of my nature,” Aron says as he turns his head to face Minhyun. “Loyalty.”

“Either I like you or I don’t. Either you are part of my pack or you’re not. The world is fiercely black and white because I can sense more intention than humans can. I see beyond those polite smiles and courteous gestures.” Aron chuckles. Minhyun turns to observe his expression. “That was the hardest part of growing up. Learning to tolerate people you rejected at a guttural level. Picking up on the nuances of societal decorum. And how quickly people are to judge you for trespassing those norms instead of for your character.”

A little softer now: “it has always been one or another.”

“But you, Minhyun.” It is a look filled with tenderness. If it weren’t for how Aron’s gaze held him captive, perhaps Minhyun would have longed looked away with flames ablaze both cheeks. “Allowed me to have both.”

“I always thought I would have to choose between my identities because no one would ever accept me for me. So thank you, Minhyun-ah.”

Minhyun shakes his head. Aron has nothing to thank him for. It was the least he could do and—

“How long have we known each other for?” Aron asks. It’s not out of the blue. Minhyun knows he has some point to make but it still takes him by surprise.

“A decade now? Maybe a bit longer?” Minhyun replies. About to ask why when Aron says:

“Do you remember the time I sprained my ankle because I was being stupid and you carried me home?” It elicits a laugh from Minhyun. Aron was trying to help a kid retrieve a kite that had fallen into the stream and slipped. He had acted as if nothing had happened up to the point of returning the kite and waving the kid off into the horizon. “You were complaining the whole way as I clung to your back,” Aron continues. “What kind of pet creates a mess for their owner?” Aron mimics, “And I said name one pet that doesn’t.”

Ever the smartass. Minhyun didn’t mind. He just needed something to distract him from the way Aron’s breath ghosted against the shell of his ear. Or the way his hair brushed the nape of his neck when he tucked in his head for a laugh. 

It comes out a little quieter now. Almost as if a confession. “And I realized how much time has passed. You've grown up.  Height had long surpassed me but now even your shoulders have grown broader.” You’re now able to carry me effortlessly, he means. “Before I knew it you were already maturing into an adult.”

Minhyun shakes his head. Knowing where Aron is going with this.

“But I have halted.”

One glance at Aron’s expression and Minhyun can almost tell where Aron is going with this. Those eyes are infinitely kind. Yet lacking that usual twinge of playfulness, replaced by melancholy.

Minhyun tries to swallowing down the panic that rises with fear and the thousands of things he wants to say. He may not have a strong sense of smell or excellent hearing but he knows Aron well. Knows that a quiver of the lip is barely held back rage. Knows that pursed lips means anger he’s trying to dissipate but can’t quite let go of. Knows that he puts others before himself and tries to help when he can and yet somehow still believes he is not worthy of the kindness or gratitude others return.

Knows what Aron is getting at.

“These have been some of the happiest years of my life Minhyun-ah,” Aron says with a voice so gentle it is almost cruel given the message he is pairing it with. “But there are things that I want in life.” Aron’s hand reaches for Minhyun’s face and as if drawn to him, Minhyun moves closer. “That I must move forward for.” Aron’s knuckle traces Minhyun’s cheekbone. Minhyun leans into it.

“Stay,” Minhyun implores with a voice that tremors. He can see how Aron isn’t unaffected by it.

Those eyes that look back at him are kind, fond, and reluctant.

“There was a point in time where that would have been enough for me,” Aron says, sincere. He cups Minhyun’s face in his hands. They are big and warm and a bit calloused as the thumbs get rid of evidence of stray tears. Minhyun wishes they would never leave.

“But I want to be worthy of you.”

Something lodges in Minhyun’s throat. His breath hitches. Those thumbs aren’t enough to catch the flow. He feels like he’s five again where the littlest thing made or broke his day. And of course it does. It’s no longer a little thing. It’s something of tremendous value to him.

“I’ll wait for you,” Minhyun manages to say. “I’ll wait for you so—” please come back to me.

Aron leans forward, almost as if knocking their heads together, pressing his forehead against Minhyun’s. Minhyun catches the glossiness of eyes, the small laugh of relief.

Minhyun thinks it’ll be okay, eventually. One day there will be a chance to finally materialize those unspoken words.

Aron’s thumbs stroke Minhyun’s cheek in a soothing pattern. The pace of their breaths fall into line.

“Before I go,” Aron braves, “will you take me out for a walk?”

It makes Minhyun bark out a laugh, incredulous. Separating them so he could give Aron a whack.

“Did you even have to ask?”

Aron chuckles and pulls a very begrudging Minhyun back into his arms.

“I’ll miss this,” Aron allows himself to admit.

Minhyun releases the all the air in his lungs through his nose with a huff. But settles his head on Aron’s chest, letting Aron thread his fingers through Minhyun’s hair the way Minhyun usually would do for him. He lets that soothing rhythm lull him into sleep, knowing that he, too, will miss this dearly.

It’s not much. Minhyun interprets it as a promise: maybe one day they will return to this small but certain happiness. And, for now, this is enough.