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Whiskers

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Lee Taeyong had never hidden his dislike for hybrids.

He didn’t hate them. He had heard of people who saw them as a lower class than they already were, something below even pets and companions without emotions or a sense of pain. Taeyong could never bring himself to hurt one. He just didn’t like the idea of them – as far as Taeyong could see, they were closer to humans and yet they were nothing more than companions, pets or in some rare cases, even worse.

When he saw a hollow-eyed kitten hybrid staring at him from an alleyway, it was his conscience that made him stop his car.

Rain seemed to pelt his windscreen even harder when he pulled onto the side of the road, darkening skies reflecting the winter air outside of his heated vehicle. There were so many stray hybrids hiding in the maze of the city, abandonment wasn’t rare once the hybrids became too expensive to keep, too time-consuming or just no longer cute. This one, however, was different.

There was something about the aging look on the kitten’s face even though he had the body of the teenager, something about the way he clutched his left arm to his chest, something about the way the winter air bit through his torn t-shirt, something about the way his ears lay flat against his raven hair, fur matted.

If the hybrid boy hadn’t looked so desperate, if the streets hadn’t been so empty, Taeyong would probably have continued driving. There was no one else around to help. Taeyong could feel he wouldn’t have felt comfortable with the guilt if anything happened to the boy who already looked in danger.

Reluctant to clamber out of his car into the rain, Taeyong waited to see if anyone else would come by and help. He waited for ten minutes. No one else came. With a sigh, he dragged himself from his car.

The rain was like ice on his face as he slammed the door behind him, pulling his thick winter jacket tighter around his shoulders. He still shuddered in the sudden cold and he wrapped his arms around himself as he edged towards the alleyway where the kitten boy had been hiding. When he was only a few short steps away, the boy noticed him.
Pure fear radiated from his trembling frame; instantly, he scrambled to his feet and attempted to run.

“Hey, hey,” called Taeyong, trying to be heard over both the rain and the sound of panic on the tarmac ground. The hybrid didn’t go far; not only was his arm clasped to his chest, but there was a limp that meant he fell straight against the brick wall behind him as soon as he tried to move. He collapsed back to his knees, head buried in his hands in either defeat, or fear.

The exhaustion from the brief movement wasn’t normal for a hybrid who had been on the streets for a few days; it was desperation from sheer survival. Taeyong found himself moving closer, dropping to his own knees and edging towards the boy in the hope of not causing more panic. He shrugged his jacket from his shoulders, reaching out to drape its thick fabric across the shivering boy. The hybrid flinched at the touch, but he didn’t pull away. Instead, he raised his head from his hands and watched Taeyong’s every move with a close eye. The rain disguised any traces of tear trails on his cheeks.

Up close, the boy was in a far worse state than Taeyong had expected – his pale skin was almost translucent, littered with fresh bruises and scratches. The jacket fell limp from his shoulders, but the boy flinched away when Taeyong reached out to fix it. Instead, he pulled it tightly around his neck himself and edged as far away as the confines of the alleyway would let him. “I’m not going to hurt you,” Taeyong reassured, but the boy wasn’t calmed by his words. He pulled his legs towards his chest.

“Do you have a name?”

The boy didn’t even give an indication that he had heard Taeyong speak. There was a black, leather band secured around his neck that Taeyong could just about make out but nothing he could see clearly. He moved closer to read it; the kitten boy did not move. Taeyong reached out, and the kitten boy flinched away. There was no issue with distance, only with being touched.

“Your collar,” tried Taeyong, putting his hands behind his back to demonstrate that he wouldn’t reach out again. “Is there a name on your collar?”

The only sound that came in response was the unrelenting rain. Taeyong could begin to feel it soaking through his clothes; it had drenched the kitten a long time ago, weighing down the soft whiskers on his cheeks. Taeyong hadn't seen a hybrid with whiskers before. Instead of trying to speak, Taeyong lifted his hands to touch his own bare neck until the boy realised what was being asked of him, and he lifted his head just enough to reveal a golden charm. The metal had to burn cold against his skin in the temperature.

“WinWin?”

Finally, a reaction – the boy nodded, before burying his face in the fabric of the jacket he still wore around his shoulders. “Your arm looks painful, WinWin,” commented Taeyong, motioning with his own hand towards the injury that the small boy kept to his chest. He pulled it tighter towards him when he realised Taeyong had noticed. “Do you need help with it?”

Silence.

“Help?” repeated Taeyong, holding his own arm in an imitation. WinWin’s matted black ears seemed to twitch.

“Help?”

WinWin spoke in a soft, tired voice which seemed just a step away from silence. His pronunciation was hidden behind a thick accent. Taeyong smiled.

“Help,” he confirmed, waiting for a nod from WinWin. When it finally came, Taeyong moved closer. “Can you stand up?”

Nothing. Taeyong clambered to his own feet, holding out a hand but WinWin refused to take it. Instead, he showed he understood the instruction by clasping on the wall behind him and pulling himself up with whatever was left of his own strength. He never left the wall, turning to lean his back against the cold brick. He didn’t put weight on his right foot.

“Help.”

Taeyong spoke it as an order, not a suggestion – he knew that even if there was nothing else, WinWin understood that one word. Without giving the hybrid a moment to protest, Taeyong moved forward and placed an arm underneath his shoulders, steadying him but also holding tightly so there wasn’t an easy escape. WinWIn tried to pull away, mewling, but he didn’t have the strength to fight back. Even with the support of the older man, WinWin could barely move forward.

Ignoring the weak-willed protests, Taeyong picked the small hybrid boy up completely and held him in his arms – he was tall, but far too light. The jacket fell from his shoulders in the process and Taeyong could feel WinWin trembling even with just a short moment in the cold air.

It was a quick walk to the car. WinWin stopped protesting when he realised that Taeyong wouldn’t put him down, and he went limp as he was carefully placed into the front seat of the car. He pulled his knees up to his chest, hugging them with his working arm. Taeyong did not like the sound of the small boy’s laboured breathing, watching his eyes flutter shut.

As soon as he was in the driver’s seat, Taeyong turned the heat up in the car as much as he could. It was almost unbearable for him, causing a flush on his cheeks, but it stopped WinWin from shivering. Taeyong didn’t know what else to do with him.

He couldn’t take him home.

Taeyong had enough friends who owned hybrids to know that he was not the sort of person who could care for one. If Johnny and his kitten hybrid Ten was enough to go by, anything with a tail was far too excitable and too much responsibility for Taeyong.

There was a shelter nearby, the same place where Johnny had adopted Ten to begin with. It would have to be there.

Chapter Text

WinWIn fell asleep in the car. Taeyong could hear his breathing slow over the gentle hum of the engine, the boy curled up in the protective cocoon of the leather seat. It seemed unlike the panicked hybrid to let his guard down, but Taeyong assumed that a combination of newfound heat and somewhere comfortable had finally enticed the exhausted boy. He almost felt guilty when the journey came to an end.

The shelter was a small building in the middle of the city, not attractive or outstanding in anyway. It was really nothing beyond a convenience, somewhere to shelter lost or abandoned hybrids in the hope of someone adopting them. Taeyong had only ever gone inside once, when Johnny had taken him to meet the kitten he was considering adopting, and Taeyong had stayed in the reception because he felt it was wrong to look at the creatures as if they were in some sort of zoo. Still, he knew someone who worked there – Jaehyun, he loved hybrids and even had two of his own. If anyone knew what to do, it would be him.

At the jolt of a car coming to a halt in a parking space, WinWin’s eyes fluttered open. He pulled his knees up tighter, watching Taeyong climb from his driver’s seat and walk around the car to the passenger door. He moved as far back as he could when Taeyong opened the door.

“Help,” offered Taeyong, knowing the one word that WinWin seemed to understand. He held his hand out, preparing to steady or even carry WinWin as they walked into the building. WinWin shook his head.

“No.”

Again, he spoke the word in a thick accent but Taeyong raised an eyebrow at the defiance. WinWin bowed his head, hiding in his knees, before speaking again. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” reassured Taeyong, stepping back. WinWin seemed surprised at the lack of reaction to him ignoring an instruction, but he carefully edged out of the car and put both of his feet on the tarmac beneath him. When he tried to stand up, his injured leg refused to support him and he fell forward into Taeyong’s outstretched arms.

“Help?” repeated Taeyong. A blush appeared on WinWin’s cheeks as he turned his head to the floor, ears flattening against his head.

Locking his car, Taeyong supported WinWin by placing his arm around the hybrid boy’s back and holding him with every step he took. They moved slowly across the car park, but the rain had slowed and Taeyong was willing to let the determined kitten move of his own accord.

The warmth of the hybrid shelter was inviting compared to the winter outside. Taeyong felt WinWin tense beside him at the sight of the new location; he could probably sense the other hybrids in the air. His slight frame began to tremble again, his breath quickening.

“It’ll be okay,” murmured Taeyong, still not sure if WinWin could fully understand him but preoccupied with the blonde who sat behind the reception desk. “Jaehyun, can you help?”

Jaehyun looked up at the sound of his name, eyes widening at the sight of his friend support the weight of a frail hybrid. “Hyung!” he exclaimed, clambering from his chair to rush over and help him with the kitten. As the new man grew closer, WinWin mewled and found himself burying into Taeyong’s chest.

“Careful,” warned Taeyong, watching Jaehyun stop and watch the hybrid from a slight distance. “He doesn’t like being touched.”

“He seems to like you.”

Taeyong could feel WinWin’s quickening heartbeat – he wasn’t happy there, but apparently he felt more secure in the arms of the person he has known for about half an hour longer. “I don’t know,” admitted Taeyong. “He’s injured and it was so cold. I didn’t know what else to do with him.”

“Injured? How?”

“His arm. There’s something with his leg too, he can’t walk.”

Jaehyun hesitated. “There’s a chair over here, bring him over.”

WinWin collapsed into the armchair as soon as Taeyong let go of him, almost as if he couldn’t support his own weight anymore. He sunk into the soft cushions, his head rolling back and the sound of his laboured breathing filling the quiet reception area. Taeyong didn’t like the concerned look on Jaehyun’s face, watching the younger boy move to kneel beside the hybrid. When he reached out to feel his forehead and check his temperature, WinWin panicked and pulled himself away as far as he could, whimpering.

“I told you he didn’t like being touched,” warned Taeyong. “He doesn’t speak Korean properly either, I don’t think. We could explain to him if he did.”

Jaehyun bit his lip in worry, but he moved his hand away from the hybrid. “I’m not surprised,” he answered. “He’s a Chinese breed, I think. A rare one. I haven’t seen one before, anyway. I need to check his temperature, hyung. His breathing…”

“I know.”

Taeyong crouched beside Jaehyun, edging a hand closer towards WinWin and softly stroking a lock of hair behind his ear – this was always how Johnny stroked Ten when he was feeling affectionate. WinWin jumped, but he didn’t try to pull away. “You’re not well,” murmured Taeyong; WinWin’s hair was softer than he expected. “Jaehyun’s trying to help you, okay? Help?”

“No,” whimpered WinWin, burying his face in the fabric of the chair and trying to curl up even smaller. “No help.”

“Just a little bit,” continued Taeyong. “Just your temperature.”

WinWin didn’t understand this. His ears flickered slightly in recognition when Taeyong added one more word – “Please.”

This time, when Jaehyun reached out, WinWin didn’t flinch. His breath quickened, his heart rate increasing, but he held himself still as Jaehyun placed a hand across his forehead. Taeyong kept stroking his hair; he could feel WinWin relax as Jaehyun took his hand away.

Jaehyun shook his head. “He’s burning up,” he explained. “It’s so cold outside as well, there’s no way he should feel that hot. And I can’t tell without an x-ray, but his arm might even be broken. I’ve seen hybrids who have been hit by cars before, I’m guessing the same might have happened to him.”

Jaehyun stood up; Taeyong copied him, watching WinWin sink back into the chair when he no longer felt Taeyong’s touch on his head. “Someone will be looking for him,”
continued Jaehyun. “He’s rare, Taeyong. He’d have been so expensive. Most hybrids have green eyes, sometimes blue in rare cases but look at him – brown eyes. It’s possible but I’ve never seen it before. And whiskers as well, they’re just cosmetic. Someone will have paid for him to get them. He’s probably declawed as well. He’s such a pretty hybrid…”

Jaehyun trailed off. Taeyong understood what he meant. “No one will abandon something they paid so much money for.”

“Exactly,” nodded Jaehyun. “He’s been stolen, or lost somehow. He’s obviously scared, poor thing.”

Taeyong glanced over at WinWin; he was trembling again, even though the reception was warm. His damp hair had become glued to his burning forehead. “You’ll look after him here until his owner is found, won’t you?” asked Taeyong. Jaehyun smiled.

“It’s why this place exists, don’t worry. We’ll do whatever it takes for him. I’d need to sedate him to look at his arm anyway, I’ll do any other medical checks I need to whilst he isn’t awake so I don’t scare him. He’s very frail though, I can’t be certain…”

Again, Taeyong was left to guess Jaehyun’s meaning. He didn’t speak it aloud this time. “Look after him,” was all he said, before kneeling beside WinWin again. The small boy had his eyes closed; he jumped when he felt Taeyong start stroking his hair again. “I’m going to leave you here. Jaehyun will help you. Be good, okay?”

“Help?”

WinWin’s voice was growing weaker. “Help,” Taeyong confirmed. He had to speak simpler if WinWin was going to understand. “Jaehyun – help. He won’t hurt you.”

WinWin’s eyes shot open, pulling away from Taeyong’s soft touch. “Hurt?”

Taeyong felt his heart break slightly at the worry in WinWin’s voice. “No,” he reassured, watching the hybrid boy relax just slightly. “No hurt. Jaehyun’s good.”

He didn’t like how WinWin’s eyes fluttered closed again. “I need to look at him closer, hyung,” murmured Jaehyun, placing a hand on Taeyong’s shoulder. “He’s getting weaker by the second. It could be serious.”

“I’ll leave,” replied Taeyong. WinWin didn’t register that no one was stroking his hair anymore. “It’ll be easier if I’m not here. Call me if…if anything bad happens to him, okay?”
Jaehyun didn’t try to reassure him that everything would be okay. Instead, he answered softly with “I will.”

“Bye bye, WinWin,” tried Taeyong, but there was no recognition from the hybrid beyond the soft labored breathing which only continued to grow slower.

Chapter Text

Taeyong wanted to believe that silence was good news.

He had only told Jaehyun to call him if anything went wrong; there had been three days of silence so far. Taeyong had done his best to spend his time in the photography studio where he worked as an intern without showing that anything was wrong but, inwardly, his heart pounded every time his phone began to vibrate. It was usually a call from Johnny, or family, or even another photography job. It was never Jaehyun.

Taeyong was at home when he finally saw Jaehyun’s name appear on his phone screen, the low echo of the vibration filling his small apartment as it rested on a glass coffee table. He reached for it immediately, scrambling to put it in his hair and answering almost breathlessly. He did not want to admit he was so anxious to hear about a hybrid.
“Is he okay?” he murmured, hearing Jaehyun’s laugh at how quickly he had answered the call.

“He’s fine, don’t worry,” he reassured. Taeyong could almost hear his smile. “Well, a broken arm and he’s still malnourished, but it’s not the worst I’ve seen. Could you come in to see him?”

“Now?”

Taeyong was flustered; once he had found out that WinWin was safe, he had planned to leave him to Jaehyun’s care. He had spent enough time with Johnny and Ten over the last three days to remind him that he definitely did not want anything to do with a hybrid beyond what was necessary, even if it was a quiet, Chinese kitten he had rescued from the rain.

“As soon as you can,” answered Jaehyun. “It’s not life or death, nothing like that. I need to talk to you.”

“I’m not going to adopt him.”

“I’m not going to ask you to.”

Taeyong sighed. It was only early evening. “I’ll be right there,” he relented, ending the call before Jaehyun had a chance to answer. He did not even bother to grab a jacket, taking his car keys and almost running down the three flights of stairs that it took to get from his floor to the road beneath. It hadn’t quite reached a point where the traffic was impossible to avoid, still early enough for the final stretches of sunlight to be reflecting off the glass windows of the tall buildings which encompassed him. From outside his apartment, it was only a ten minute drive to the shelter where Jaehyun wanted to see him.

He waited another five minutes in his car, just like he had done when he had first seen WinWin.

Eventually, Taeyong dragged himself from the confines of his car and locked it behind him. The reception was empty when he walked in, but the door sounded a soft bell whenever it was opened and the noise was loud enough to entice Jaehyun from a store room off to the side. “Hyung!” he exclaimed, a smile spreading across his face at the sight of his friend. “I wasn’t expecting you to get here so quickly.”

“I’m not going to adopt him”, repeated Taeyong as he moved towards the reception desk. He watched Jaehyun lick his lips nervously, avoiding his gaze as his smile faded. “You told me that wasn’t what you were going to ask.”

“Not adopt,” corrected Jaehyun. “Just…foster him. For now. I can’t find anyone else.”

Foster – just look after him until he got a home somewhere else.

“Why can’t he stay here?”

“Come and see him.”

Taeyong didn’t want to, just in case. “You told me there was nothing wrong with him,” he tried.

“There isn’t,” reassured Jaehyun, pushing his way through a back door that Taeyong knew lead to the few rooms that shelter had. He’d never gone back there, but Jaehyun didn’t move from the doorway until he saw Taeyong move to follow him. “You just need to see him, okay? There’s nothing wrong.”

There was something about the overwhelming atmosphere of being surrounded by hybrids that Taeyong really disliked. Each tiny room – no bigger than a cell, but decorated in far brighter colours and more soft furnishings – had a window which let Taeyong glance into what hybrid was trapped there until someone cared enough to adopt them. He knew that there would always be a handful who would never leave – cats, dogs, even rabbits glancing at him hopefully as if he was going to be there new owner. “I know you don’t like this place, hyung,” comforted Jaehyun, feeling Taeyong tense up beside him. “WinWin’s just this room here, on the right. Tell me what you think.”

Taeyong bit his lip. WinWin looked the same he had done on that rainy day in the alleyway: pitiful, fragile, desperate with a look of hunger in his chocolate eyes. He wore nicer clothing this time, the uniform of the shelter, and his arm was protected by plaster as his broken bone healed. There was also a bandage on his knee. His arms were still littered with scratches. Unlike every other hybrid in the shelter, WinWin did not look towards the visitors at his window. He stared straight ahead at a wall, legs curled into his chest, unblinking.

“He doesn’t look…” Taeyong hesitated, searching for the right word. “Right?”

“I could tell that he might be a bit more…difficult when you first brought him,” explained Jaehyun, tapping gently against the glass to try and elicit a response. There was nothing. “There was the language barrier obviously, but he talked to you are little bit so I thought he had to know something. He didn’t like being touched but I’ve seen hybrids like that before. It’s just…he’s worse than I thought.”

Taeyong placed a hand on the glass. “There’s nothing wrong with him, is there?”

“You know he’s a pedigree, right?”

Taeyong shook his head. “You told me he was rare,” he corrected. “A Chinese breed. You didn’t know more than that.”

“Well,” continued Jaehyun. “We know more now. WinWin is a full-blooded pedigree, a rare Chinese breed just like I told you. He’s not the kind of cat hybrid we usually have here, not just some pet where people look for the cutest face and then pay the adoption fee. WinWin would have been very expensive. Designed, almost.”

That explained his distinctive features, his brown eyes and the glossy black fur which matched his hair exactly.

“If you ever look at a hybrid closely, hyung, you can see they aren’t perfect. They have scratches or scars or something, just from when they were growing up. They’ll have gotten into fights or fallen out of trees or done something when they were younger. Its normal, it’s part of growing up and no one cares. But a pedigree cat like WinWin – well, look at him. He’s special. Someone was always going to pay a fortune for him, but every single imperfection would lower that amount. Pedigree cats are raised deliberately to be perfect, yeah? They get taught manners and behaviour and all sorts of other things.”

Taeyong shuddered – he had heard what some people were willing to do to their hybrids, especially if they paid a high price for them.

“I think that’s why pedigree breeds have such a reputation,” shrugged Jaehyun. “They’re known to be…unreliable, I guess. Ready to snap at any moment, but I think anyone would be difficult to handle if they grew up without being able to play like a normal kitten. I’m not saying anything bad happened to WinWin, don’t worry. I’m just saying he’d have been raised differently. He won’t be used to being surrounded by hybrids and different breeds, he isn’t used to this number of staff and routines and anything like this. He isn’t going to settle in.”

Taeyong tried tapping on the glass, just as Jaehyun did. There was no reaction from the hybrid kitten, WinWin’s eyes almost glazed over as he continued to stare at the wall. The only moved was a slight tremble, one that Taeyong recognised from the alleyway. “I’d take him myself,” continued Jaehyun. “You know I would, without a second thought, but I’ve already got Hansol and Yuta and I don’t want WinWin to be with two overly excitable dog hybrids. They’d traumatise him! Johnny has fostered for me before, but now he’s got Ten and…WinWin needs to be on his own, Taeyong. He needs to be someone quiet, and he really seemed to trust you.”

“I wouldn’t know how to look after him,” argued Taeyong, looking away from WinWin to shake his head at Jaehyun. “I’ve never raised a hybrid before. I don’t like them. You can’t expect me to start with some…some, pedigree or whatever you said.”

“It’s not like that,” interrupted Jaehyun. “I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t trust you completely. It’s not as hard as you think. WinWin needs to be somewhere quiet and private, a normal home for now. It’ll keep him safe until we find where his home was or, if we end up having to put him up for adoption if no one claims him, then he’ll be used to it. He’s not eating here, hyung. Look at him, if he loses any more weight then he’ll disappear.”

Taeyong hesitated.

“Hyung, I’ll just be a phone call away if you need help with him. Johnny too, he knows what he’s doing. I’m not going to just throw a hybrid at you and watch you struggle, WinWin is too special for that. I want him out of here as soon as I can.”

When Taeyong turned back to WinWin, he saw the same desperate kitten he had rescued from a roadside alleyway. He hadn’t said no then, even when every part of his brain had told him to move on and ignore the trembling silhouette sheltering beside a recycling bin.

“Do you promise you’ll help me if I need it?”

Taeyong’s voice was barely audible, but his question caused a smile to spread across Jaehyun’s face. “Yes! Of course, hyung. I promise.”

“I have a spare bedroom. I just want him to be safe, okay? I’ll look after him, just until you find somewhere else.”

Jaehyun nodded eagerly. “That’s all I’m asking,” he confirmed, beginning to unlock the door to WinWin’s room and push it open. “I trust you, don’t worry. WinWin liked you. He won’t respond to me at all, or anyone else here. WinWin, are you going to come and say hi?”

WinWin stayed silent, but his position had moved to watch the two men entering his room with a curious expression. His head tilted slightly when he saw Taeyong, his posture relaxing slightly. “Taeyong-hyung is going to look after you for a while,” continued Jaehyun, moving closer to WinWin and dropping to his knees so that he was on the same level. WinWin edged away from him. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you? You’ll be on your own with no other hybrids, and you’ll have your own bed and a nice apartment and a load of food so you can start eating again.”

WinWin clearly did not understand a single word – Taeyong recognised the panicked, fearful look spreading across his face. The perfection was more obvious now that Jaehyun had pointed it out, with even his whiskers seeming to accentuate his cheek bones. “You have to speak differently to him,” explained Taeyong, cutting Jaehyun off. Then, locking his gaze with WinWin’s, he spoke the one word he was certain he would understand. “Help?”

The flash of recognition on WinWin’s face was heart-warming. When he repeated the word, it was still disguised by his accent but no longer hoarse or broken. WinWin’s natural voice was soft, like he was always laughing.

Taeyong tried something else, a sentence. “Will you let me help you?”

WinWin bit down on his lip nervously, his tail twitching. Taeyong had never paid attention to his tail before, but it was immaculate, the same raven black has his ears and his hair. The hybrid’s voice was more uncertain when he spoke this time, stretching his legs out in front of him.

“Please?”

Chapter Text

It took all of Taeyong’s will power to not go back on his promise. He stood in the reception, clasping onto the edge of the desk until his knuckles turned white as he watched Jaehyun filling out the paperwork he needed before he could take WinWin home. The hybrid boy was next to him, watching Jaehyun curiously as his pen flew across the sheets, leaving behind scribbles that WinWin couldn’t read. He kept his distance, flinching away if Taeyong even looked as if he was thinking about reaching out for him.

“I have to go to work, you know,” warned Taeyong. “Am I going to be okay to leave him?”

“I don’t see why not,” answered Jaehyun, finishing the final form. “You’ll need to keep an eye on him, but no hybrid has constant supervision. You just have to look after him, get him used to being a pet. Anyway, WinWin doesn’t feel like the kind of kitten who will destroy everything in your apartment as soon as you turn you back. All done! You need to take this one, it’s just his basic information.”

“I can just take him?”

“It’ll be best to get him home as soon as possible so he has time to settle down. If you’re unsure about anything, just call me. I’m so thankful you’re looking after him for him. If anyone comes to ask about him, I’ll let you know and we can go from there. If you can’t cope…”

Jaehyun trailed off. Every part of Taeyong’s mind was screaming that this was a bad decision. “It’ll be fine,” he murmured. “I can get Johnny to help me.”

“Thank you,” repeated Jaehyun, smiling. “Good luck?”

“Thanks,” muttered Taeyong. He let go of the desk. “Let’s go home, WinWin.”

WinWin didn’t move. Even as Taeyong moved towards the door, WinWin stayed in the centre of the reception and glanced nervous back at Jaehyun as if waiting for permission. When he waved goodbye, WinWin finally moved to follow Taeyong five paces behind.

“You can sit in the front with me,” explained Taeyong once they were alone in the car park, turning to walk backwards so that he could see his new hybrid. He knew WinWin wouldn’t understand a word he was saying, but it had to be better than silence. “It doesn’t take too long to get back to my apartment, and you can have your own room and everything. We can find you food as well. What’s your favourite food?”

WinWin looked confused, the familiar panic spreading across his face. Taeyong sighed, before turning back to his car and opening the passenger door for his new pet. WinWin hesitated, before clambering into the seat.

“Don’t forget your seatbelt,” warned Taeyong as he sat in front of the wheel, met with a confused stare from the small hybrid until he mimed exactly what was needed. WinWin opened his mouth in recognition, pulling his seatbelt around his small frame. At least he knew how to do that.

They drove in silence; WinWin switched from looking out of the window with his curious look to watching Taeyong closely. If Taeyong turned to look at him, WinWin always turned away. He could see the boy trembling. “It’s okay,” he tried, but if WinWin understood then he didn’t acknowledge it. He continued watching the passing cars, ears twitching nervously.

He didn’t want to get out of the car once Taeyong had parked it.

Even when Taeyong opened the passenger for him, WinWin pulled his legs up to his chest like he always did when he was uncertain. Taeyong was beginning notice familiar habits in his new kitten. “It’s okay,” he reassured again, but WinWin wasn’t comforted by the calming words. He only moved when Taeyong reached out to stroke the hair behind his ears again, flinching away before finally placing both of his feet on the pavement and reluctantly following Taeyong to the front door.

He barely managed the three flights of stairs that it took, his leg still bandaged. “Help?” asked Taeyong, but WinWin shook his head and moved forward with gritted teeth. When he made it, he broke into a wide grin. It was the first time Taeyong had seen him smile; somehow, it made the pedigree even prettier. “Well done!” he congratulated, instinctively reaching out to pat WinWin on the back but pulling back when he saw the kitten flinch. Whenever he had been around other hybrids, Taeyong had always seen them almost beg for attention, to be touched and stroked and comforted. WinWin was different – Taeyong needed to get used to that.

“Come on,” he murmured, unlocking the door to his apartment and pushing it open with the tip of his foot. He entered first, leaving WinWin to move at his own pace. “It’s small here, there’s not much. You can have your own room though, and…and it’s better than the shelter, I guess.”

WinWin did not even try to listen; he peered cautiously around the doorway, glancing wide-eyed at the apartment where his new owner was inviting him in. It was bright, white, clean, everything that the shelter hadn’t been.

“You can come in,” laughed Taeyong, amused at the hybrid’s expression. “Don’t worry, I don’t mind.”

The hybrid didn’t move until Taeyong encouraged him with a wave, and even then he moved slowly as if he was scared to leave a mark or break something. It seemed wrong to invite someone new to live in his home with nothing to his name apart from the clothing he wore, and even that was a uniform that had been forced onto him. He needed something.

“Do you want to see your room?” asked Taeyong, and when WinWin only blinked in response, Taeyong did his best to simplify it. “Room – yours?”

The kitten’s ears twitched, but he still didn’t move. Eventually, Taeyong waved to him again, coaxing him forward and towards a door in the back of the main room. He hadn’t used this room in a while, the last time being when he still shared the apartment with his old roommate Taeil. It seemed the perfect place to give to a small cat hybrid, just so that he had somewhere where he felt safe. “You can have it,” he explained, once WinWin was in the doorway and surveying the room with the curious look that Taeyong was beginning to find endearing. There was nothing in the room beside a bed pushed to a corner, a small wardrobe beside one wall and a small table that held a lamp. There wasn’t even curtains on the window. “Yours!”

“Mine?”

WinWin absent-mindedly covered his mouth with his hand, hiding the fact he was biting down on his lip. The way that he spoke almost seemed like disbelief, veiled with his accent and soft tone. Taeyong nodded – “Yours.”

At the confirmation, the kitten boy moved further into the room. He went straight for the bed, sitting on the soft mattress and throwing his head onto the pillow with the faintest laughter escaping his mouth. He could see out of the window from his position, using the windowsill to pull himself up to get an even closer look at the moving city outside. The sun had gone down now; streetlights were beginning to flicker on, headlights from moving cars casting dancing shadows on the buildings opposite. WinWin watched, wide-eyed.

“You can stay in here, if you want,” reassured Taeyong, when WinWin turned back to check that he was okay to sit on the bed. “I need to go and make food. I’ll be outside if you need me.”

Taeyong laughed when WinWin nodded, the hybrid clearly not understanding a single word he had said. It was easier to leave him to the window, giving him chance to settle in without Taeyong constantly watching over his back. He was sure no one would like that. As he turned to leave the room, he heard WinWin’s soft voice murmur something behind him.

“Thank you.”

Chapter Text

“He’s adorable, but I don’t know what to do with him.”


Taeyong sat on his dining table, phone held to his ear as he watched the pot of ramen on his stove to make sure that it didn’t boil over. He had checked on WinWin three times since leaving him in his room, and the kitten hybrid had already fallen asleep surrounded by pillows. He snored softly; Taeyong wanted to stay and listen to him, but he felt like that was probably crossing a boundary.


“You’ll pick it up, don’t worry,” reassured Johnny, his voice buzzing through the phone’s speaker. “Do you think I had any idea what I was doing when I brought Ten home?”


Taeyong sometimes wondered if Johnny had any idea of how to raise a hybrid even now. “I know,” murmured Taeyong; his kitchen was becoming filled with the scent of the cooking meal. “WinWin is different though.”


“How?”


“He…he doesn’t like being touched. He’s not like Ten. I can’t even go near him without scaring him.”


“Not all hybrids are the same, He’s probably just shy, he’ll get used to you.”


“I hope so,” sighed Taeyong. He climbed down from the table, turning the heat down on his stove and holding the phone to his ear with his shoulder as he found two bowls to hold the ramen. He wasn’t used to cooking for two people. He didn’t even have any idea of what food WinWin liked. “What do they even like to eat? I’ve never had a hybrid before.”


“I know Ten likes sweet things and, to be honest, I’m surprised you have a hybrid now.”


Taeyong went to reply, but he was interrupted by the quiet creak of a door. He turned to look; a small kitten hybrid was staring at him around the doorframe, watching him. “I’ll call you back later,” explained Johnny. “I have to eat anyway.”


“If I don’t feed Ten soon, he’ll probably break something else anyway. Good luck!”


Johnny hung up; Taeyong felt alone with no idea about what he was supposed to do now. “Food?” he tried, looking for the glimmer of recognition in WinWin’s eyes. As he waited, Taeyong took the two bowls and placed them on a table. “You can come and eat, WinWin. It’s okay.”


WinWin moved slowly, as if he was afraid that Taeyong would tell him to stop and go back to his room. Even the way he took the chair out from under the table, dragging it slowly as if he was scared he would mark the floor, was somehow soft and well-thought out. He sat gracefully, perching on the edge of his chair as if he was waiting to have to run at any moment. “Eat,” instructed Taeyong, picking up his own chopsticks. WinWin followed his lead, seeming to struggle at first to pick up his food but eventually managing to shovel mouthfuls of noodles into his starving body. Taeyong couldn’t help but smile.


“Jaehyun said you didn’t eat much,” he wondered aloud, knowing WinWin wouldn’t understand a word that he was saying. “Didn’t you like the food at the shelter?”


There was no answer; Taeyong hadn’t been expecting one. The food was completely cleared from both bowls in only a matter of minutes, WinWin seeming to desperately scrape at his own to make sure he got every single last trace of food he could find. When he realised there was absolutely nothing left, the slightest pout appeared on his face as he began to sulk, before he collected himself and began to nervously twist his hands in his lap.


Johnny had said that Ten liked sweet things – Taeyong remembered his words exactly, glancing at his new kitten and seeing the remaining hunger still waiting in his eyes. There was nothing else about WinWin that seemed remotely liked Ten, but they both had a childish charm that suggested they would both willingly fill themselves with sugar if they were given the slightest chance. Taeyong himself was not the sort to have a house filled with sweets and chocolate which he could have given to his hybrid, but there was one thing he always had in his freezer just in case he was caught on a hot summer’s day with no other way to cool down.


“Do you like ice cream?”


Taeyong was not sure whether he was supposed to expect a response, but WinWin’s ears pricked at the sound and his head shot up. Instead of inspecting the grain of the wood on the table, WinWin inspected Taeyong’s face for any sign he might be teasing him. When he spoke, it was barely a whisper. “Ice cream?”


“Ice cream,” repeated Taeyong, and the hybrid eagerly nodded his head, the faintest of smiles beginning to spread across his lips. Taeyong collected both bowls and put them in the sink, before moving to his freezer and rooting through the drawers of his freezer that had all becoming stuck with ice until he found the exact treasure he was looking for. Chocolate – its dark brown colour was rippled with syrup and pieces of toffee, ice crystals beginning to form on the top of the sweet dessert. He didn’t even bother with a bowl; Taeyong brought the entire container to the table with two spoons.


When he handed on to WinWin, the boy seemed hesitant to take it. He reached out as if he was willing to pull back the moment Taeyong showed any indication of becoming a threat. His gaze was thrown back to the floor as he murmured two indistinct words. Taeyong could barely make them out, but they sounded unfamiliar.


“What did you say?” he tried, surprised when a blush appeared on WinWin’s cheeks to offer enough indication that he had perfectly understood the question. The hybrid looked up through his fringe with an apologetic glance, almost as if he was afraid he had done something wrong. “It’s okay, just say it louder so I can hear you better.”


WinWin bit his lip, his voice seeming rough with how little he’d used it. “Thank you,” he murmured, trying his best to enunciate the Korean pronunciation through his thick accent; he wasn’t very successful. Then, he added one more phrase that made a chill run through Taeyong’s heart. “Master.”


“No,”


Taeyong’s disapproval was almost immediate, the harsh nature of his tone causing WinWin’s eyes to widen and his hands to return to his lap, leaving the spoon on the table. He looked directly down at the floor once more, trembling returning to his shoulders in a way that seemed to indicate he was about to cry. “No,” tried Taeyong once more, but this time softer and in an attempt to reassure the kitten. “No, WinWin, it’s not you. You didn’t do anything wrong!”


He had heard stories of it before, and it made sense when he remembered the stories Jaehyun had told him about how pedigrees were raised and sold, but Taeyong did not like it. There was something about the term that he found unsettling, almost sickening. It was supposed to be respectful, just a way for a hybrid pet to address his owner, but there was something else about it. Something that, to Taeyong, felt as if it was just a way of getting a hybrid to constantly remind itself that there was always someone better than them, always above them. If Taeyong thought about it too much, he could even imagine families or household where using that term could lead to situations that were even worse. A tear rolled down WinWin’s cheek.


“Master,” repeated Taeyong; it felt wrong even when he said it as an example. “No. No…master.”


The instruction was simple enough for WinWin to understand. He glanced up curiously again, staring at his new owner through his fringe with the endearing confused look that his Taeyong had fallen for. “My name is Taeyong,” he added, enunciating each word clearly so there was no way that WinWin would be able to mistake it. “Taeyong.”


Then, he added “hyung” for good measure. WinWin was definitely younger than him; if he was supposed to be teaching him how to be a normal hybrid, there were still some formalities that had to be followed.


“Taeyong…hyung?” tried WinWin, the name sounding unfamiliar and almost foreign in his strange accent. Taeyong smiled, and nodded. WinWin, on the other hand, frowned. The new way of speaking felt wrong to him; it felt disrespectful.

 

"Come on," coaxed Taeyong, opening the lid on the container of ice cream and taking a spoonful for himself. "We need to eat this before it melts. You said you liked ice cream."

 

WinWin watched hungrily as Taeyong put the spoonful in his own mouth, but he didn't follow his example. Instead, he sat still with Taeyong's previous words on his lips. "My name..."

 

He trailed off, but Taeyong complimented his improving pronunciation until WinWin shook his head. That wasn't what he wanted.

 

"Taeyong-hyung," he murmured, drawing his knees up to his chest in the protective position he always took when he was nervous. Almost stuttering his way through the sentence, WinWin's accent was even heavier when he spoke with uncertainty. "My name is Sicheng."

Chapter Text

“Sicheng,” repeated Taeyong, certain that the name sounded as foreign in his accent as his own had done in WinWin’s – no, Sicheng’s. The hybrid boy nodded nervously, as if he was afraid of being rejected. “Okay, if that’s your name then I’ll call you Sicheng.”

Sicheng could tell that Taeyong approved; he smiled a genuine smile for one of the first times since Taeyong had found him, picking up his spoon and taking his own mouthful of the ice cream in front of him. There was a spark in his eyes that lit up when he took his first taste, something lively and childlike. Suddenly, Taeyong could almost see the usual excitable nature of hybrids in the expression on Sicheng’s face. “Do you like it?” he asked, laughing when Sicheng nodded eagerly and went to take another bite. Taeyong quickly joined him; he didn’t want to eat all of it and make himself ill.

The silence at the table did not seem as uncomfortable as it had been before Sicheng had grown brave enough to smile. He didn’t seem to hide at all now, no more sinking into his chair or curling up to hide his face. It was if his own name had broken down this barrier, something like a wall which now no longer existed and made Taeyong seem safe. It was a heart-warming difference.

“How much Korean can you speak?” tried Taeyong, the ice cream in front of them slowly becoming liquid but the two of them still quickly spooning it into their mouths. There was always a slight pause whenever he spoke, Sicheng desperately trying to catch hold of the words and deciding whether he knew enough to decipher them. If he did, he then had to work out an answer. The slight hesitation was endearing, his ears twitching whenever he caught a word that he recognised.

“A little,” answered the hybrid eventually. He still spoke as if he was ashamed of how he sounded, focusing more on the ice cream than on Taeyong’s reaction. “Not much.”

“Did someone teach you?”

“Old mast…”

There was that word again; Sicheng stopped himself this time, trying to think of a word which could replace it. “Family?” suggested Taeyong, and Sicheng nodded.

“Old family.”

“Can you read?”

Sicheng didn’t understand that question. He moved his head slightly, as if trying to hear better, but Taeyong was still met by the familiar look of confusion that followed most things he tried to say. Putting his spoon on the table, Taeyong used his hands to mime opening a book and sounding out the letters. Sicheng’s mouth opened in realisation, before being followed with “Ah…no, no…”

“Reading?”

“No reading.”

His pronunciation was wrong, but Taeyong didn’t want to overwhelm him with too many new words at once. It meant he probably couldn’t write either. They were two skills that a pedigree hybrid would probably never have had a use for. “Didn’t anyone teach you how to read or write?” asked Taeyong, speaking slowly in the hope that Sicheng would pick enough words out to create the question for himself.

Sicheng returned his hands to nervously twisting them in his lap under the table. “Only loud,” he tried, not making much sense. “Not good…loud…either.”

Taeyong wanted to hide his confusion, but the blush that appeared on Sicheng’s cheeks and the muttered apology suggested that Taeyong had not done it well. “Do you mean out loud?” he tried. “Like, speaking?”

“Speaking,” Sicheng nodded, His pronunciation was better that time.

“I think you speak fine,” reassured Taeyong, smiling to make sure that Sicheng understood he was being complimented; his reaction suggested that he understood perfectly.

“What…what about Chinese? Can you speak that?”

“Chinese?”

Sicheng seemed surprised, his eyes widening but he spoken the word for his native language as if it was one he spoke a lot. Taeyong nodded, prompting him. “A lot,” answered Sicheng, eventually. “All.”

“Reading? Writing?”

Sicheng nodded.

“Can you show me?”

There was an old shopping list waiting to be thrown away on the kitchen counter, the pen used to make it having rolled slightly further down the surface. Taeyong grabbed both, turning the paper so the blank side was visible to Sicheng and placing the pen beside him. The hybrid boy watched him curiously. “Chinese?”

Taeyong nodded. Slowly, Sicheng picked up the pen and began to make familiar markings in the paper that seemed nothing more than a series of lines to someone who couldn’t read it. He finished quickly, sliding the paper back to Taeyong to indicate he was done.

‘我的名字是思成’

“What does it say?” murmured Taeyong softly, and Sicheng leant across the table to point out each character in the sentence and sound out exactly how it was supposed to be pronounced. His accent suited this pronunciation far better, confidence creeping into his tone that Taeyong hadn’t heard in the small hybrid boy before. When Sicheng realised Taeyong still didn’t have any idea, he went back and sounded out the same meaning in Korean.

“My name is Sicheng.”

Taeyong bit down on his lip; it was unsettling to see a word in front of you or to hear it out loud and to have no idea what it was supposed to mean. He felt a sudden pang of sympathy for the kitten, someone who lived in a place where everything must have been as foreign to him as the simple sentence written on the back of a shopping list was to Taeyong. He took the pen.

Sounding out each syllable carefully, Taeyong tried to match the Korean spelling to what was written above in Chinese. He could hear Sicheng murmuring each time he spoke, trying to mimic the pronunciation which he wasn’t quite used to. Taeyong hesitated when he reached Sicheng’s name, not quite sure of the best way to translate it into another alphabet, but he did his best.

‘내 이름은 스청’

“See,” he explained, sounding out each syllable again and pointing them out to make sure that Sicheng understood as much as possible which each symbol meant. After hearing him speak it, Taeyong could hear the Chinese pronunciation of sounds creeping back into whatever Sicheng said but he admired how hard the kitten tried. By the time he finished, his pronunciation of that one sentence was far beyond what it had been before and his face seemed to glow with a new-found pride. For whatever reason, that sentence was important to him and it was a great achievement for him to be able to say it in two languages.

“Do you want to try another one?” asked Taeyong, and Sicheng nodded with a beaming smile. This time, it would be better if it was something easier but also, something just as important.

‘아이스크림’

“Ice cream,” sounded out Taeyong, almost trying not to laugh as he heard the excitement in Sicheng’s voice as he tried to replicate it. This time, it wasn’t too difficult and Sicheng was able to master the pronunciation of his favourite food in only three tries. Taeyong handed the pen back to him. “Now, you teach me in Chinese.”

‘冰淇淋’

Sicheng found himself trying not to laugh as Taeyong stumbled over the unfamiliar pronunciation, unable to read what had been written in front of him and instead just trying to mimic the sound that Sicheng was patiently teaching him. He pointed each sound out carefully with his finger, watching Taeyong’s mouth attempt to follow him. When his hand brushed up against Taeyong’s arm, he didn’t pull away.

Chapter Text

“I told you he’d settle in if you just gave him chance,” reassured Johnny, his voice buzzing through the speaker on Taeyong’s phone. He had put it on loudspeaker, after getting Sicheng’s permission, so that the quiet hybrid could get used to hearing Korean spoken in another voice. Johnny’s way of speaking actually seemed easier to follow, his American heritage showing itself in slightly slower speech and simpler pronunciation. Sicheng could still only understand a handful of words, but it was easier than when Taeyong spoke them. “Did you find out what food he liked?”

“Ice cream,” answered Taeyong, laughing at the smile which spread across Sicheng’s face at the sound of the word. “You were right when you said they liked sweet things. I don’t really have anything else sweet to give him, though.”

“He’ll probably eat anything you put in front of him, just like Ten does.”

At the mention of Ten, Taeyong bit his lip and glanced at Sicheng. “I want to ask you something about Ten,” he explained, picking up the phone and taking it off loudspeaker so he could hold it to his ear. Sicheng looked confused, tilting his head in the endearing way he always did when he didn’t understand. “I just need to take care of Sicheng for a second, okay?”

“Take your time.”

Taeyong smiled. “I need to talk to him, okay?” he explained, taking the phone away from his mouth and speaking directly to the kitten. Sicheng nodded when he thought he understood what had been said. “Just give me a minute. You can do whatever you want, I don’t mind. I’ll be back in second.”

He took the phone into his own room; Taeyong didn’t want Sicheng to hear him. “Okay,” he murmured, standing at the window of his bedroom with the distant lights beginning to blur in his eyes if he stared at them for too long without blinking. “I just wanted to ask you something about when you adopted Ten.”

“Go ahead,” answered Johnny; Taeyong could almost hear the inviting smile on his face.

“When you first adopted him,” began Taeyong, pausing to think of a way to phrase the question in a way that gave him the answer he wanted. “What did Ten call you?”

“I told him to call me Johnny-hyung,” answered Johnny. “He was fine with that. I think that he was on first-name basis with the person who owned his adoption shelter anyway, it was just a new name to learn. Why?”

Taeyong sighed. “Sicheng called me ‘master’ and I still find it weird.”

Johnny was silent; Taeyong didn’t want to jump in and fill it until Johnny himself said something. “Master?”

“Yeah. It didn’t even seem like he found it strange.”

Taeyong could almost hear Johnny thinking, the slight murmurs of indistinguishable words being whispered under his breath. “Jaehyun told me he was a pedigree. Maybe that’s one of the things a pedigree has to learn? It’s just a sign of respect.”

“It’s not, though, is it?” Taeyong tried. He could hear that Johnny seemed as confused, and perhaps as unsettled, as he had done when he first heard Sicheng mutter it. “If it was his old owner, maybe – I mean, the kind of person who makes a hybrid call him ‘master’ is the sort who probably sees them as something a lot worse.”

“I’m sure it’s not like how you’re thinking,” reassured Johnny. “It doesn’t mean anything. Pedigrees are raised in a school, right? You’re a new person to him. Maybe he just learnt that he has to be respectful to you until you tell him otherwise. He doesn’t call it you now, does he?”

“No. I told him to call me Taeyong, but he hasn’t used my name since then.”

“You have to give him a chance. You already said that he is a lot better with you than he was on the shelter, so he clearly prefers living with people and being a pet to someone. If someone had hurt him in his old home, he’d be trying to run away from you as fast as he could. He’s probably just nervous because he doesn’t know how to react. He might be in pain too, Jaehyun said something about him hit by a car…”

“Yeah,” interrupted Taeyong. “We don’t know but he’s definitely injured. I should probably get back to him. Thank you, though, for helping…”

Taeyong trailed off. He could hear Johnny laughing, before he was met with a cheerful “anytime, don’t worry about it” and his phone began to ring with the familiar sound of a dial tone. He locked his phone, throwing it onto his bed and only stopping behind to check that it wasn’t going to fall to the floor before peeking out of his bedroom door. Sicheng hadn’t moved; he still sat at the table.

“I said you could have done anything,” smiled Taeyong, but Sicheng still didn’t move. He seemed happier to see Taeyong in the same room as him again. “If you don’t want to do anything else, you could help me tidy up?”

Sicheng didn’t understand, but he picked up on the instruction as soon as Taeyong picked up their empty bowls and placed them by the side of the sink. As Sicheng collected their spoons in his one working arm, Taeyong turned the tap on to begin filling the sing; the sound of running water filled the apartment.

There was a metallic clatter behind him.
He turned, instantly laying eyes on Sicheng who was desperately searching on the floor for the spoon he had dropped. Taeyong assumed it was just an accident but, when the spoon was safely back in his hand, he watched as Sicheng cautiously backed away from him rather than handing him what needed to be washed. “You okay?” asked Taeyong, choosing to edge towards the nervous hybrid just like he had done during that evening in the alleyway.

“Water,” murmured Sicheng, posture hunched over with his shoulders drawn all the way up to his head. The way he spoke was fearful; Taeyong didn’t like it.

“You don’t like the water?” he tried, and Sicheng shook his head almost immediately. It seemed surprising at first, but Taeyong supposed it was a ‘cat’ thing. He made a mental note of another question to ask Johnny – what did Ten think of a kitchen sink? “It’s okay, Sicheng. You don’t need to come near it.”

He took the cutlery off the hybrid, pointing out that he could go elsewhere in the flat. “You can sit on the sofa, don’t worry about that,” he suggested. “Or your room? I don’t mind, Sicheng. You can do what you want.”

Sicheng hesitated, but he eventually decided to run and hide in his own room. Taeyong finished the washing up on his own, before moving to Sicheng’s room to check that everything was okay. The kitten lay on his bed, knees curled up to his chest and his face turned towards the door. He went to move to his feet as soon as Taeyong walked in, but Taeyong shook his head and motioned for him to stay where he was comfortable. Sicheng did not edge away as Taeyong sat on the edge of his bed, even letting his new owner stroke the same lock of hair he had done when he had first been taken to the adoption shelter.

Sicheng murmured something to himself, something in Mandarin that Taeyong couldn’t understand at all. It was the first time he had heard the hybrid speak his native language without prompting. It must still be his instinct, the language he slips into when he was tired or panicked. “You should probably sleep,” suggested Taeyong, watching as the small hybrid boy yawned. “I have to work in the morning. I need to sleep too, just s…”

“Don’t go?”

Sicheng’s voice interrupted him, something Taeyong had not expected. The request was quiet, but desperate; there was a tone to Sicheng’s voice that suggested his heart would break if Taeyong tore away now. “I’ll stay,” reassured Taeyong, watching Sicheng’s eyes close with the softest smile on his face. “Just until you fall asleep.”

Taeyong did not expect himself to fall asleep alongside the kitten.

Chapter Text

Taeyong did not want to leave Sicheng alone.

He’d woken up as the sun had begun to stream through the kitten’s window, lying still for just a moment to listen to the sound of Sicheng’s soft breathing. When he looked at the hybrid’s face, he could see the slightest smile as he buried further down into a mountain of blankets and pillows. He didn’t want to wake him up, but Taeyong also didn’t want to leave him in the apartment alone without any indication that he was coming back. Taeyong could tell Sicheng’s mind would immediately jump to the worst conclusion.

He wrote him a note instead, in the clearest handwriting he could manage to make it easier for Sicheng to read – “had to go to work, will be back soon”.

He still wasn’t sure if that would be clear enough. Taeyong used his phone to search for a translation, before copying down what he hoped was the Mandarin for what he was trying to say. Hopefully, between the combination of the two, Sicheng would be able to follow. He left the note on the kitchen table, putting it beside a bowl of cereal that he put together just in case Sicheng was too cautious about being in the apartment alone to feed himself. Taeyong, on the other hand, found that he couldn’t stomach any food that early in the morning. He just tamed his hair into something vaguely presentable, and threw on some clothes that was not the outfit he had slept in.

“You look different,” commented Doyoung as soon as Taeyong entered the photography studio. Doyoung was younger, but he owned the studio and it complicated the formalities of their relationship just a little bit more than Taeyong would have liked. “You’re…smiling, that’s it. You’re never usually smiling this early in the morning.”

“I can smile if I want to,” retorted Taeyong, finding the familiar camera which he always hid under the shop desk. Working in a small store, taking pictures of families and children and pets and anyone else who wanted a photo taken as cheaply as possible, had not been what Taeyong dreamed when he fell in love with photography. He preferred trees, the sky, anything beautiful beyond a face, but that didn’t give him money. Instead, it was working for Doyoung and following instructions that gave him his pay. He wasn’t just providing for himself anymore.

“You’re not usually this happy,” continued Doyoung, switching the sign on the door of the shop from ‘closed’ to ‘open’. “Something happened last night, didn’t it? Did you meet someone? New girlfriend? Boyfriend? I don’t judge either way.”

“No,” protested Taeyong; he found himself almost laughing at Doyoung’s suggestions. “It’s nothing like that.”

“Well, what is it?”

Doyoung sat on the edge of the desk, watching as Taeyong set up his familiar tripod in the corner of the shop that had been turned into a studio through carefully placed white sheets. From his expression alone, Taeyong could tell that Doyoung wouldn’t leave him alone. “I have a new pet, that’s all,” relented Taeyong, sighing when he saw the smile spread even further on Doyoung’s face.

“Pet? Or a hybrid?”

“A hybrid.”

“I can’t see you owning a hybrid, hyung. So, is it a dog? Rabbit? No – you’re a cat person, aren’t you?”

“Yes, a cat, okay? It’s only a temporary thing, until he gets a new home.”

“What colour?”

“Black. Pedigree, actually.”

Doyoung raised his eyebrows. “Pedigrees are supposed to be difficult to handle,” he tried, but Taeyong didn’t flinch.

“Sicheng isn’t difficult.”

That was almost a lie; Sicheng wasn’t ‘difficult’ in the conventional sense, but there were definite issues that Taeyong hadn’t fully agreed to face. Doyoung left him alone then, feeling the atmosphere change as he pushed Taeyong past the point where he was comfortable talking. It left a silence between them, but no more than there usually was – if it had been a busy day at the studio, it’s likely that their conversations would have been filled completely with different instructions and requests, all sorts of photos being taken and handed to Doyoung to sort them and print off whichever one the customer wanted.

It was a quiet day; by three in the afternoon, there had only been one customer and they had been quick to deal with. “You can go, if you want,” suggested Doyoung, after the sound of a ticking clock had filled the photography studio again. Taeyong had been doing nothing but waiting, but at least he was getting paid. “If anyone else comes in, I’ll handle them.”

“No,” argued Taeyong. “I need the money. I’ll stay till five.”

“I wasn’t thinking about doing that, I’ll still pay you. We don’t want you being away from your new pet for too long anyway. Pedigrees are valuable. What was his name again? Sicheng?”

The way Doyoung pronounced the name didn’t sound quite right; it was almost as if he simplified it, and it lost the magical touch it had had when Sicheng himself had announced it the previous evening. Even though Taeyong hated the smirk that had spread across Doyoung’s face, he didn’t want to argue. He’d left Sicheng alone for too long already. He had no idea if the kitten even knew where he was.

“Okay,” relented Taeyong. He brushed the hair away that had fallen into his face; he hadn’t styled it properly that morning and the hot studio lights were beginning to take their toll. “If you need me…”

“I won’t need you,” reassured Doyoung. He watched carefully as Taeyong opened the front door, and then just before it shut – “have fun with your new kitty!”

It was a short walk across the centre of town to get to where Taeyong had parked his car, passed the fountain that was the centrepiece of the central square. It was surrounded by cafes, high end shops, all things that Taeyong felt he wasn’t quite entitled to be around. However, it was still a great place to be when the hot sun began beating down on a summer afternoon. Taeyong almost wanted to bring Sicheng there, but he wasn’t sure how the kitten would have reacted to the splashing jets of the centre fountain.

Taeyong knew that hybrids were allowed there; they could not enter shops, but a few cafes would allow hybrids providing they were well behaved and didn’t cause any sort of disruption. The open square was fair game to anyone, and Taeyong had seen more hybrids there during his time working in the city than Jaehyun probably had in the shelter. That was just another reason to not bring Sicheng, just in case the other hybrids caused him to withdraw further into his shell.

Taeyong thought he saw someone he recognised.

The glance was fleeting, but there was something about the sudden picture of two black, kitten ears almost hidden by a mop of hair that he found familiar. The person who had walked by had the same qualities as Sicheng, the same wide-eyed expression and cautious posture that Taeyong recognised from his own hybrid but there was something different. The hybrid here, moving through the square, seemed to move with more recklessness, his eyes darting around to take everything in rather than to check whether he was in trouble. He was dragged forward by his arm, with something that Taeyong could only describe as a handcuff clamped around his wrist that lead to a decorated leather strap held tightly by the hybrid’s owner. They headed to the fountain, the owner – an old man, newspaper under his arm – sitting down on the brick wall beside the water’s edge. The hybrid was more hesitant, keeping his distance from the fountain until his owner forcibly pulled on the chain and the hybrid was left with no other choice but to stumble forward and sit himself beside the water. The owner’s voice drifted past Taeyong on the slight breeze:

“Kun, we’ve talked about this before. You do what I tell you.”

Chapter Text

When Sicheng woke up, it took him a minute to understand where he was.

His room was lit brightly with sunlight, something that made him bury his head back into his pillows and go back to sleep. He would have been scared if he had overslept, but the room was not something he recognised. His master was nowhere nearby. The apartment sounded silent, not like a house with the distant sound of hybrids all through the building.

The day before came flooding back to him in a series of waking memories: the shelter, a new owner, a new home, a place where he could eat ice cream and he didn’t have to call anyone ‘master’ and he could sit wherever he wanted without being told off. He liked it there. It was almost too good, enough to make him wonder if it was even real.

“Taeyong-hyung,” called Sicheng cautiously, sitting up and pulling the blanket with him to hide behind just in case someone else was there. He remembered asking his new owner to stay with him – the way he stroked his hair was different, nicer than the way anyone else had stoked it before – but it didn’t look like he had. Sicheng sighed; he knew he couldn’t have everything. He must have been asking too much.

There was no answer to his call. That unsettled him. No matter where he was, there usually was always a response when he wanted attention, even if it was unwanted. Keeping the blanket wrapped around his shoulders almost like a cape, Sicheng edged to the door of his bedroom. Was he allowed out? Usually, there would have been rules that dictated exactly where he could be at what time, but Taeyong hadn’t laid anything like that out for him. Taeyong had made it seem like there were even no rules at all.

The apartment was empty. Sicheng could feel his heart begin to beat faster when he realised there was no one there except him. Even the door to what he assumed was Taeyong’s room was open to show that there was no one hiding in there. The bed didn’t even look as if it had been slept in. He was alone.

However, he didn’t feel as if he was supposed to be alone. There was a bowl of cereal on the table, something that Sicheng thought Taeyong would have cleaned up if it had been his. There was even a spoon resting beside it, the same design of the spoons they had both used to eat the ice cream last night. The chocolate sauce still lingered on Sicheng’s tongue; he licked his lips.

The cereal was sweet – not quite as sweet as the ice cream, of course, but sweet enough to appeal to Sicheng’s childish tastes. There was even a note resting beside the bowl, another indication that it had been left there for him. The Korean was complex enough to scare him at first, but after several attempts at reading what he believed was supposed to be Mandarin, Sicheng believed he finally understood the message. He smiled; he was happy that Taeyong had at least tried.

His new owner was at work. That was something unfamiliar to Sicheng; his old master had only ever left the house of his own accord, not because someone had summoned him. Sicheng knew what work was, but he knew it in the sense of servants, in the sense of the instructions himself and the others had always been given to complete with a threat always lurking behind it just in case they didn’t.

Sicheng decided that he didn’t like it when Taeyong was at work. When he was alone, things could always easily go wrong. He might touch something that he wasn’t supposed to touch, or go into a room where he wasn’t allowed. Taeyong couldn’t be at work long; it would be easier for Sicheng to stay at the table and wait.

 

It took a lot of courage for Taeyong to sit himself at the fountain, as close to the man as he dared whilst glancing at his phone to make himself look far less suspicious. The similarities between this hybrid – Kun was what his owner had called him – and Sicheng were far too much to just be a coincidence. They both had to be a pedigree, even the same breed. If Taeyong ever found the courage to speak to the man who was now reading his newspaper, he might be able to get even more information than Jaehyun had been able to give him.

He was doing this for Sicheng.

“That’s a really nice hybrid,” commented Taeyong, keeping one eye on his phone and one on the man to gauge his reaction. He didn’t want to seem too eager, even though inside he was desperate to ask any question he could think of. The man lowered his newspaper. “I was just looking, I hope you don’t mind, I…umm…just so I can see if I’m right, is he a pedigree?”

Luckily, the man smiled. He didn’t seem to be annoyed at all. If anything, he relished the chance to show off. “Yes, he is,” he answered, quietly. His voice was far softer than when he had scolded Kun earlier. “He’s a Chinese pedigree actually, they’re rare. Worth quite a bit as well. You must have quite the eye for hybrids.”

“Ah, no.” Taeyong tried not to blush. “I have one myself actually, that’s all.”

Taeyong could not help but feel as if the man was beginning to look him over from head to toe. “You don’t look like the sort to handle a pedigree,” he murmured, smiling again when he realised Taeyong might take offence. “It’s just because you seem quite young. I know most people your age take in a hybrid just as a companion, and pedigrees aren’t exactly the best at that. They’re notoriously difficult to handle, you know? Unpredictable, violent. They’re much nicer as…well, ornaments, don’t you think?”

At that moment, Taeyong found that he hated the man. “He’s not entirely mine,” he explained, but now he wasn’t as sure he wanted to be talking to him. “I’m just looking after him for a friend, just for a while. He hasn’t been difficult to handle at all, even though he’s been moved around a lot recently. Anyway, your hybrid seems well behaved. What did you say his name was?”

“I didn’t,” smiled the man, but the smile was forced now. He pulled on the strap that connected to Kun’s wrist, jerking the hybrid’s hands from his lap. Now that he was closer, Taeyong could see that the handcuff chain had rubbed the skin around the hybrid’s wrist. It was far too tight. “Kun, be polite and say hello.”

“Hello.”

Even the way Kun spoke, barely looking at Taeyong through his fringe, seemed forced. He didn’t have the accent that Taeyong was expecting; Kun sounded fluent. “You speak Korean well,” complimented Taeyong, watching a blush appear on Kun’s cheeks and the slightest smile spread across his face.

“Kun learns quickly,” added his owner, not letting Kun have another chance to speak. “It’s partly one of the reasons I bring him out with me. Also, he always attracts attention when he’s out. I know people can’t resist a hybrid any more than they can resist an actual kitten, and with Kun – well, he’s definitely good looking.”

“Definitely,” murmured Taeyong. “I…I haven’t taken mine outside yet. Do people tend to stare?”

“Pedigrees are meant to be looked at, are they not? They’re not exactly good at anything else.”

Taeyong bit his lip. He wanted to say something, but the air of confidence around the man – and the desperate glance at Kun, who seemed to silently plead that it would be better if Taeyong just agreed and then left – made Taeyong keep from fighting back. “I should go,” he said, instead. “Just quickly, I saw that Kun was kind of…I don’t know, hesitant to come near the fountain. I know my hybrid is scared of water as well. Is that a pedigree thing or…”

“Most cats that I’ve come across aren’t particular fond of water,” explained the man. “I guess it’s just part of their instincts. But Kun was just being silly, weren’t you? I’ve told him before that the fountain won’t hurt him and if he doesn’t start listening to me, I’m going to have to teach him another way, aren’t I?”

Kun didn’t answer; when the man began to take hold of the newspaper in his lap, Kun flinched and pulled up his legs to bury his face in his lap. “You have to be firm with pedigrees,” he continued, turning to look back at Taeyong who had now stood up. “They aren’t like normal hybrids. They can be vicious, and rebellious. Taming them can be an absolute nightmare but when you look at them, it seems worth it, don’t you think? Anyway, I should let you go. I really hope your pedigree hasn’t wrecked your home whilst you’ve been gone. They don’t like being left alone.”

“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” answered Taeyong, forcing a smile. Kun remained hidden. “I…I know it’s not really my place to say, but I think you might have tightened the thing around Kun’s wrist a little too tight. I know you have to control him, but he seems in pain and I don’t want that for a hybrid. I just think you should loosen it, is all.”

With that, Taeyong walked away; he couldn’t bear to be near that man any longer.

Chapter Text

When Taeyong got home, Sicheng was still sitting at the table in the kitchen. He could see out of a window from where he sat, amusing himself by watching the cars and people that moved past their apartment building in such a busy city. He hadn’t been able to see anyone from the windows of his old home. He still had the blanket draped across his shoulders.

“I told you that you could do anything,” was the first thing Taeyong announced as he closed the door behind him, startling the hybrid from whatever he had been thinking. The sudden smile on Sicheng’s face was enough to warm Taeyong’s heart. “You haven’t been sitting there waiting for me, have you? You can’t have been there all day.”

Sicheng didn’t answer; that was enough to confirm what Taeyong had thought. “There isn’t as many rules here, he explained, walking towards the hybrid and absent-mindedly stroking his hair in the way that always seemed to comfort him. “I don’t know where you lived before or what kind of people they were like, but you can do whatever you want here. As long as you don’t break anything on purpose, it’s fine.”

Taeyong was slightly reassured when he saw that the hybrid had eaten the breakfast he had left him. If he hadn’t left the kitchen table all day, he can’t have eaten anything else. He must be starving. “Come on,” continued Taeyong. “Hungry?”

Sicheng understood the question, answering with a nod. Taeyong picked up the empty bowl and spoon and placed them in the sink. He didn’t turn on the water just yet, it would be better to do that when Sicheng wasn’t watching. “What do you want then?” he asked. “Pizza? Chicken? Something else?”

When the hybrid seemed to show no recognition to the names of the food, Taeyong settled with opening the app on his phone and showing Sicheng the options he had. The hybrid looked as if he had never seen any of them before, eyes wide as Taeyong gave him the phone and allowed him to look through at his own pace. He eventually settled on pizza, stuttering but eventually managing to sound out its name in his broken Korean to a proud Taeyong.

“It’ll take about twenty minutes, okay?” asked Taeyong as he placed the order, watching as Sicheng nodded eagerly; he was willing to wait another twenty minutes. Taeyong sat beside him, playing with his phone nervously as he rested it on the table. “Did you want to meet another hybrid?”

Sicheng cocked his head in that adorable way he always did when he was confused. “A friend,” explained Taeyong, and Sicheng seemed to understand that phrase. “Another kitten. Do you remember we spoke to someone on the phone last night? Johnny?”

Sicheng nodded, pointing at the phone. “Yeah,” nodded Taeyong. “Him. He had a kitten like you, called Ten. He’s really friendly. I just thought…you’ve been on your own all day, it might be nice for you to meet someone new. It won’t be like the shelter, I promise. I know Ten, he’s nice but he’s a bit…over excitable, I guess.”

Taeyong was almost rambling at this point, Sicheng barely able to catch a word beyond the basic description of the other hybrid. He was still uncertain, but the way Taeyong spoke about him, with a soft smile, told Sicheng that it would be alright – hopefully. He nodded. Taeyong hadn’t been expecting that.

“Tonight?” he tried, and Sicheng nodded again with an attempt at a grin. “Oh, okay. Shall…let’s call them now then, shall we?”

 

Johnny and Ten arrived just as Taeyong and Sicheng had finished eating their pizza. Taeyong knew for certain now that Sicheng had never tried pizza before, or most foods, through the conversation they were able to have through broken Korean and Taeyong’s translation app. The kitten had been confused by the triangle slices at first, watching his new owner curiously before trying to mimic the action and take a bite. He ended up with tomato sauce of his whiskers that he tried to wipe away and only made it worse, but he was confident that the taste of the pizza made up for the difficulty of eating it. Taeyong had spent the entire meal trying not to laugh.

When the apartment was filled by the sudden knock at the door, the change in Sicheng was almost immediately. The shell that he had crawled out of over the past twenty-four hours was back, knees curled up to his chest as he sat with his back against the sofa and faced the front door as if a monster was going to burst through it and attack him. It didn’t matter how many times Taeyong had tried to reassure him, Sicheng remained the same. He already wondered if this was going to be a bad idea.

“He’s really nervous,” murmured Taeyong as he opened the door, Johnny leaning against the doorframe and Ten peeking out from behind him. Taeyong hadn’t noticed before but he could see definite differences between Sicheng and Ten now that they were close together, tiny changes that seemed to make Sicheng into a pedigree whilst Ten was officially nothing beyond any other hybrid – Sicheng’s brown eyes were a main difference, but also his whiskers. The only cat-like trait Ten had were two ash-brown ears poking through his tuft of black hair.

“I’m glad that’s replaced hello,” smiled Johnny, but he shot a nervous glance into the apartment. “Will he be okay?”

“He needs to get used to it,” justified Taeyong; it wasn’t exactly an answer, but it was enough. “I just know that Ten…he needs to be careful. I know you can get overexcited.”

Ten glared at Taeyong. “Johnny-hyung told me about him,” he explained. “I won’t be too friendly, I promise. I’ll be careful.”

“I’m serious. Sicheng has a broken wrist, okay? You can’t play with him too much.”

“And his Korean isn’t too good, right Taeyong?” added Johnny, and Taeyong nodded.

“So?” shrugged Ten. “I could barely speak when I came here and I was still okay. I won’t hurt him.”

“He’s a pedigree,” sighed Taeyong, stepping aside to let Johnny and Ten inside the apartment. “He’s not exactly used to other hybrids. Sicheng, do you want to come and say hello?”

When he looked back, Sicheng had pulled himself to his feet. He nervously played with his hands, but he kept his gaze upwards to watch Ten and take in every part of him, from the shows he wore to the very tip of his ears. When Sicheng spoke, it was soft but clearer than his usual pronunciation. He tried to smile, but he didn’t quite manage it.

 

“You’re really pretty,” exclaimed Ten, and a familiar blush appeared on Sicheng’s cheeks. “I’ve never seen a pedigree before. You’re like a doll!”

Johnny placed a hand on Taeyong’s shoulder. “They’ll be fine,” he reassured, before laughing to himself. “It’s like we’ve set our kids up on a play-date and now we’re just hovering to make sure they don’t try and kill each other.”

“Please don’t say that,” sighed Taeyong, but he couldn’t help but laugh at the accuracy of the analogy. “I talked to someone who owned a pedigree after work today. He said they were like ornaments rather than pets.”

“He sounds like the worst kind of person.”

Taeyong nodded. “He had something tied to the kitten as well” he continued, remembering the sight of Kun being pulled everywhere by the handcuff clamped far too tightly around his wrist.

“Like a lead? You have to use them in public areas in the city, I think. You know, just in case a hybrid goes wild. It’s happened before”

“I know, but…”

Taeyong hesitated. Johnny prompted him to continue with the slightest nod of his head. “It was far too tight,” shrugged Taeyong. “The metal – it was cutting into his wrist, rubbing at his skin and leaving marks and the hybrid looked like he was in so much pain.”

Johnny bit his lip. “Have you looked to see if Sicheng has a mark like that?”

“It’ll be hidden under his plaster if there is anything. Jaehyun didn’t mention it, but then I’m beginning notice that Jaehyun didn’t mention a lot of things.”

“That definitely sounds like Jaehyun,” smiled Johnny, trying to make Taeyong laugh as he pulled gently on his sleeve to get him to move and sit on the sofa rather than stand in the doorway. Ten and Sicheng had both sat on the floor, Ten easily dominating the conversation whilst Sicheng tried to listen, confused.

“Honestly,” murmured Taeyong, scared that Sicheng might hear him now that they were close. “I wouldn’t be surprised if his old owner used those handcuff things on him.”

“You can’t keep assuming everything was bad,” reassured Johnny. “Sicheng might just be shy. Ten was quiet too when I first got him. He could speak English to me, but his Korean…then again, he’s never quiet now so maybe I should never have taught him.”

“I can’t keep looking after Sicheng on a hope and a maybe though, can I?” protested Taeyong. “I want to know why he’s scared of water and why he’s never tried pizza and why he’s too scared to leave a room or touch something if I haven’t given him direct permission. Every time I mention his old owner, Sicheng just looks as if he’s about to break down in tears, Johnny. If Ten can get anything else out of him about his past, it will be a very wanted miracle.”

Chapter Text

There was something about being around Ten that opened Sicheng a little more than he had been with anyone else. The familiar habits of a hybrid were almost comforting, especially when they came from a small and excitable kitten rather than a hundred other animals in a shelter where Sicheng could not see them to gage their reactions to him. Ten was loud, and he spoke too fast most of the time, and he mixed up words in a way that made it very difficult for Sicheng to understand him, but he still liked him.

“Did you live with hybrids before?” asked Ten, and when Sicheng showed that he didn’t understand the mumbled question, Ten was careful to repeat it slowly and carefully, no matter how many times it took until Sicheng finally realised what he was being asked.

“Ah,” murmured Sicheng, eyes wide with recognition when he understood. “Yes. Lots.”

“Like a shelter?”

“No. Um…house, big house. With master and…”

“You called them master?”

Sicheng blushed; he had forgotten he wasn’t supposed to use that word here. “No,” he tried, stumbling over his words and pronunciation. “Owner…I…not master, I’m sorry.”

“Why did you have to call him master?”

Ten was not deterred by Sicheng’s sudden drop in confidence. He moved forward on the carpet, not seeming to noticed when Sicheng edged away slightly and even glanced at Taeyong for help. Taeyong was too busy talking to Johnny to notice. “I’ve never heard of anyone having to say that,” continued Ten, not exactly caring if Sicheng could understand him or not. “It’s really weird, isn’t it? If you want to be called master, that’s just strange. Why did you call him that?”

Sicheng tried to resist the urge to curl him like he usually did when he did not want to face a situation. “I…” he tried, voice trailing off as he attempted to find an answer. “He…he told me…”

“What about if you didn’t call him master? Did he punish you?”

Sicheng did not answer that. “Come on,” interrupted Johnny, nudging Ten gently with his foot. He had noticed the panicked look on Sicheng’s face, and Taeyong met his eye in a way that seemed to apologise for letting Ten go too far. “I don’t think Sicheng wants to talk about that, do you?”

Ten shook his head; Sicheng could not help but laugh at the way the fur on his ears shook with him. Even though Ten did not know why they were laughing, he joined in as well. “Okay,” he tried. “Before then – Johnny-hyung said you lived in China! Did you really come all the way from China?”

Sicheng nodded his head shyly. “That’s really cool,” smiled Ten, and Sicheng couldn’t help but smile as well. “You know, I came all the way from Thailand. We can be foreigners together! Korean is really hard to learn, isn’t it?”

Sicheng nodded again at this, almost laughing. “Really hard,” he repeated, trying desperately to get his mouth around the pronunciation so that he mimicked Ten perfectly.
“Don’t worry, Sicheng,” added Johnny. “You’re keeping up with how fast Ten talks. I think you’re a lot better at Korean than you think you are.”

 

When Johnny and Ten left, Taeyong almost smiled at how disappointed Sicheng looked. He had been a lot more confident with the other hybrid than Taeyong had expected, the two getting on a lot better than anyone had hoped despite such an obvious language barrier. Sicheng had tried his hardest to overcome it; he wasn’t quite as shy as Jaehyun had warned when Taeyong had first decided to foster him. “You know,” murmured Taeyong, taking his seat back on the sofa whilst Sicheng still perched on the floor. No matter how many times Taeyong reminded him that he was okay, Sicheng never found the courage to sit anywhere apart from the floor or the kitchen table. “I think we need to wash your hair, Sicheng.”

Sicheng only understood one word in the sentence that his owner spoke. Wash – that meant water. He brought his knees up to his chest, hiding his face as he mumbled “no water” so quietly that he could barely be heard. Taeyong reached out to stroke his hair; Sicheng hesitated, before lifting his head.

“Your old owner washed your hair, hm?” asked Taeyong, carefully watching for any reaction from Sicheng that indicated this topic of conversation was going to grow too much. “How did he do it?”

“He…” began Sicheng, but he soon trailed off and answered with a violent shaking of his head instead, burying his face back into his knees.

“It’s okay,” reassured Taeyong, edging off the sofa to sit directly beside the distressed kitten. “I won’t hurt you, promise. We can’t let you get fully in the water anyway, because we can’t get your plaster wet. You can just lean over the side of the bath and I’ll wash your hair for you.”

Sicheng did not understand what Taeyong was saying, but he recognised the soft tone that he used and it served as a reminder. Taeyong had used the same tone when talking to him in the alleyway, when meeting him at the shelter, when serving him ice-cream and when stroking his hair and when saying he’d stay beside him all night.

Taeyong had not hurt him yet. Sicheng reluctantly nodded his head.

He nearly backed out again when they entered the bathroom, recognising the sight of a bath and shower spray and desperately trying to hide behind Taeyong until his owner showed him that the shower spray would only spray water beneath it. It would not aim for Sicheng, or chase him. The water would only touch him when he was ready for it. That was better than it had been in the past.

Taeyong draped a towel over Sicheng’s shoulders so that his t-shirt would not get wet and, with some coaxing, Sicheng reluctantly knelt on the carpet at the side of the bath. Taeyong held the hybrid’s hand. “Just bend your head forward,” he murmured, speaking quietly so that he didn’t scare the kitten. His other hand held the shower spray, the water already running at a temperature Sicheng had deemed okay. The kitten whimpered when the water first touched his head, but Taeyong squeezed his hand and Sicheng remained where he knelt, letting the water run over him as his heart rate quickened and his breathing started to grow into the laboured, panicked mess that Taeyong hated to hear.

Sicheng held his breath at first, but soon that became too much for him and he had to finally breath in deeply. His lungs did not flood with water, not like the last times when he had had to wash his hair. The shower spray was not like a bath where water was all around him; this felt like he had an escape.

Taeyong put the shower down and replaced it with shampoo instead. It was cold on Sicheng’s head, but he forgave it because it smelt like strawberry ice cream and it made bubbles that floated down into the bath and made Sicheng smile. He also liked how Taeyong avoided the fur on his ears. Shampoo had always made his ears sting; his old owner had never seemed to realise that, or he just didn’t care.

“Water again,” warned Taeyong as he picked up the shower spray again, but this time Sicheng did not seem to mind. The water had warmed up slightly, but it was still not as hot or as scalding as he had felt in the past. It washed the shampoo from his hair but the strawberry scent lingered. Eventually, when Taeyong was done, Sicheng lifted his head from the bath and his fringe dripped down his face. He tensed, but the water didn’t hurt.

“That wasn’t too bad, was it?” asked Taeyong, taking the towel from around Sicheng’s shoulders and using it to dry his hair so it wouldn’t drip down. Sicheng shook his head, sitting patiently as Taeyong used the towel to take as much of the moisture from his hair as he could. Taeyong did not own a hairdryer; he always slept with his wet, if it came down to it.

“I told you I wasn’t going to let it hurt you,” he added, and Sicheng smiled. “Do you want me to stay with you again tonight?”

Sicheng had not been expecting this question. He had to listen to it for a second time, making sure that he was stringing all the words together in the correct way to make the question he was so desperate for Taeyong to have asked. The answer was yes.

 

They slept in Taeyong’s room this time. The bed was a double one, meaning that they could each have enough room to fall asleep comfortably without having to leave Sicheng along. Taeyong knew he couldn’t comfort the hybrid every night but for then, his second night with him, he did not mind if Sicheng did not want to be alone at night. The apartment was still unfamiliar.

He had managed to find clothes that fitted Sicheng in his wardrobe, a hoodie and some sweatpants that would be okay for him to sleep in. They were too big for him, technically, but as sleepwear they were comfortable and warm, and Sicheng liked the way they seemed to cover him just like the thick duvet did. Taeyong still stroked his hair, even though it was damp.

“How come you don’t like being on your own, eh?” asked Taeyong. When Sicheng did not answer, Taeyong tried to find a way to simplify the question but that was not the issue. Sicheng knew what had been asked, he just didn’t know how to answer.

“Dark…” he tried eventually, his voice quiet. Taeyong understood that: Sicheng had a fear of the dark. Even in the centre of the city, Taeyong’s apartment became almost pitch black when every light was turned off at midnight. It was surrounded by several other, taller buildings; there were only dancing shadows once the sun had set.

“There’s nothing scary in the dark,” reassured Taeyong, but it did not mean anything to Sicheng. “What about at your old home? Did you sleep on your own then?”

Even when Sicheng was lying down, he shook his head. “Not on my own,” he answered, trying to repeat how Taeyong had phrased it. “Other…other hybrids?”

“There were more of you?” asked Taeyong, and Sicheng nodded this time. “Lots of you?”

Sicheng counted, muttering Mandarin numbers under his breath. “Five.”

“Five of you? All pedigrees?”

Sicheng nodded again. “That’s a lot,” murmured Taeyong, and he thought he heard Sicheng laugh. “What…what about your owner? Did he stay with you in the dark?”

Sicheng hesitated. “Sometimes,” he stuttered, trying hard to phrase what he wanted correctly. “Beside me.”

“How?”

“Like you.”

“Just beside you?”

Sicheng was silent; it spoke more than any answer he could have given, and Taeyong hated it. “It’s okay,” he reassured. “Sleep tight, okay? I don’t have to work tomorrow so you can stay in bed as long as you want.”

Taeyong stayed stroking his hybrid’s hair, listening to his soft breaths that were so much nicer than when he panicked, or when he was in pain. When he spoke, Sicheng’s voice was soft like the sound of a feather falling to the ground. “Taeyong-hyung?”

“Mmm?”

“Thank you.”

Chapter Text

When Sicheng woke up, the bed beside him was empty. In daylight, the apartment did not seem as endless or as terrifying as it did each night when the lights were turned off and darkness seemed to radiate from every single corner. He could hear Taeyong in the kitchen, his voice holding a conversation in hushed Korean that Sicheng could not quite understand. There were no replies from inside the apartment, but he could hear his owner murmuring in acknowledgement as he listened to something.

He must be on the phone.

Carefully, Sicheng pulled himself from the warmth of the bed covers and wrapped his arms around his shoulders when he began to shiver in the air-conditioned air of the apartment. He did not open the door, instead choosing to sit on the carpet and press an ear against the wood to try and listen to what Taeyong was saying. He spoke fast, the pronunciation muffled through the barricade, but Sicheng still tried to follow as closely as he could.

 

“How am I going to tell him?” murmured Taeyong, sitting at the kitchen table and resting his head on his hand in a way that would engulf him in darkness rather than the bright sunlight that flooded into his apartment. This was not a time for sunlight.

“The same way I told you,” answered Jaehyun; the serious tone in his voice was evident even as it buzzed through the speaker on Taeyong’s phone. “We can’t sugar-coat this or lie to him, that will only make it worse and you know it.”

“He’s only just settling down. He’s thriving here, just like you said he would. It’s nothing like he was at the shelter. He’s speaking and he’s eating. I even got him to talk with Ten, and to wash his hair and…”

“It’s not your choice, Taeyong. We have to do this.”

Taeyong pushed his chair away from the table, blood running cold. He could not stand still, choosing to pace around his apartment. “I’m just telling you everything I know,” continued Jaehyun, trying to talk in a calming way. “We don’t even know if it’s true yet. All I know is that someone phoned in to see if we had collected a missing hybrid, and he happened to match Sicheng’s description. When they see him, they might say it isn’t even him at all.”

“How many pedigree hybrids are going to go missing?” protested Taeyong. “How many people are going to be phoning up asking specifically for a Chinese pedigree cat hybrid with black hair and deep brown eyes and whiskers and…and…”

“I’m sorry, hyung. You did say you were only going to foster him, this could never be a permanent thing. He was going to be rehomed if his owner didn’t come forward, you said you would never adopt him.”

“I…I know what I said, Jaehyun. If he was getting rehomed, I wouldn’t be like this because I know they would be good to him. I can’t make him go home to his owner, you don’t hear the things that he says about him.”

Jaehyun sighed. “We can’t take a hybrid off someone unless they are convicted of cruelty,” he explained; Taeyong could almost hear him shaking his head. “Do you know how hard that is to do? It’ll be impossible, especially if we’re dealing with someone who has enough money to import a pedigree hybrid. They’ll crush us in court. And if you keep Sicheng, then we’re just stealing and that will get us into more trouble.”

Taeyong stayed silent. Jaehyun allowed the silence to remain for a minute, before interrupting it with a quiet, soft tone. “Do you want me to come and get him so you don’t have to do it?”

“No,” answered Taeyong, immediately. He knew that he could not abandoned Sicheng like that. “I want to come with him. I want to say goodbye and see who his owner is and make sure that Sicheng is okay and…”

“I told the owner to be here at midday,” interrupted Jaehyun. “Bring Sicheng here around then, and we’ll go from there.”

“You didn’t explain how I’m supposed to tell Sicheng.”

“I can’t tell you that. You know him best, I don’t know how he’ll take the news. If you think it’s better to pretend that you’re taking him elsewhere, then you do that. Please, Taeyong-hyung, just bring him here at midday or else you’ll be in a lot of trouble.”

Jaehyun hung up, deciding it was better to not give Taeyong a chance to argue and convince him that Sicheng needed to stay in foster care. Taeyong was left sighing into the dial tone of his mobile phone, before ending the call himself and placing the phone on the table, burying his face in the fabric of his jacket sleeves as he leant forward.

“Taeyong-hyung?”

The plaintive voice hurt him more now, but he quickly wiped away any trace of distress and tried to force a natural looking smile as he turned towards the kitten. “Sicheng,” he tried, his voice almost cracking. “You’re awake. Was I – ah – was I too loud on the phone? Did I wake you up?”

Taeyong hated the way that Sicheng pouted slightly, his bottom lip quivering and his eyes watching him. It was not a curious look; it was a fearful one. “I don’t understand,” he murmured after a while, and Taeyong could not be sure whether Sicheng did not understand the language, or the decision Taeyong had made.

“Neither do I,” answered Taeyong. He smiled; Sicheng did not return it. “Let’s go and get ice cream, shall we?”

 

The ice-cream parlour was empty at that time in the morning. The owner himself had said he did not have an issue with Sicheng being there, but if any other customer came in and took offence to the presence of a hybrid then they would have to leave. Taeyong accepted that offer; he knew it was the best he was going to get.

It was the first time he had taken Sicheng outside of his apartment since they had first met, and he noticed the wall being built up around Sicheng again even after the progress made in breaking it away. The kitten jumped at the sound of cars, stayed as close as he could to Taeyong if any other hybrid walked by, hid his face when he saw people staring at him. The nervous habits that he had developed were even more pronounced when he was in public, and Taeyong could hear his panicked breathing even as the Sicheng sat still, ice cream in front of him but not being eaten.

“Come on,” prompted Taeyong; Sicheng did not look at him. “It’ll melt if you don’t eat it quickly. I thought you liked ice-cream?”

“I like it,” answered Sicheng, finally picking up his spoon and tracing a pattern into the treat that waited for him to taste it. He had chosen strawberry, like the shampoo he could still smell on his hair if he tried really hard. He still did not put any in his mouth, and when he saw Taeyong look at him with a look that suggested both confusion and regret, Sicheng put his spoon down again.

“What?” asked Taeyong. He reached out, putting his hand on Sicheng’s. For the first time in a while, the hybrid flinched away.

“On…on phone,” muttered Sicheng, not meeting Taeyong’s eye. “You said ‘owner’. Why?”

Taeyong’s heart stopped. “I…” he stuttered. “I was talking to Jaehyun. You remember him, right? He’s the person from the shelter, the one who looked after you…”

“Why you say it?”

“Sicheng, I’m sorry.”

Finally, Sicheng looked up. The eyes that Taeyong had fallen in love with, that had convince him to stop and help the abandoned hybrid he had found in the alleyway, were full of fear. He spoke almost silently

“Help me."

Chapter Text

Jaehyun bit his lip to stop himself from making a comment, watching carefully over his desk as the man in the corner pulled on the lead which was attached around the wrist of his hybrid. He made some snide remark, some comment about the kitten’s posture or expression which resulted in a hung head and a heart-breaking expression of defeat. Jaehyun wished he could say something, but it was not his place; unless the owner showed definite and deliberate physical harm to a hybrid, they had no case to confiscate those under his care.

“You told me he would be here at midday,” commented the man, once he noticed Jaehyun was watching him. “I’ve waited for ten minutes now. I didn’t expect this to be an errand that would take time.”

“Taeyong-hyung lives in the centre of the city,” answered Jaehyun, returning to his paperwork; he did not like to look at the expression on the man’s face. “It’s likely that there’s traffic, or maybe the hybrid is being particularly difficult. I know he isn’t a fan of car rides.”

When the door opened, a bell rang through the reception area. The cheerful sound did not seem to fit the solemn atmosphere as Taeyong pushed his way through the front, a wide-eyed Sicheng holding onto his hand as if it was the only lifeline that he had left. When Sicheng saw the man and the hybrid in the corner of the room, he forced his eyes tightly shut.

“Well, he looks a lot better than he did when he was in the shelter,” smiled Jaehyun, attempting to lighten the atmosphere but the fake nature of his grin did not help. “Did you finally get him to eat something them, hyung? And he’s holding onto your hand, when before he’d flinch away if he touched anything.”

“WinWin!” called the man, and Sicheng edged even further behind Taeyong. He opened one eye, just to look out for danger. When Taeyong turned to take a closer look at the person claiming to be Sicheng’s owner, he felt the tightness he had been feeling in his chest constrict even further: even if he had forgotten the face of the man from the fountain, he had not forgotten the forlorn look of Kun, chained to his master.

Taeyong still hated that term, but it seemed the only one fitting of such a commanding owner. “I’m not happy,” he murmured to Jaehyun, who had come out from behind his desk to oversee everything that was happening. “The man…I know him, he’s not a good person.”

“Unless he physically hits a hybrid in front of us, we have nothing,” argued Jaehyun; he kept his volume low enough so that only Taeyong, and maybe Sicheng, would be able to hear him. “If I don’t give him his hybrid back, I am breaking the law. They will close down the shelter and I have no idea what will happen to the hybrids we have here. We have no choice.”

Taeyong felt his chest constrict again, Sicheng’s grip tightening on his hand. “I take it you’re his owner,” he announced, eventually. His mouth was dry, but he forced each word as the man took a few steps closer, pulling a reluctant Kun behind him. “He told me he preferred the name Sicheng. I just thought you should know.”

“Oh, he hasn’t been called Sicheng for years,” replied the man. “I named him WinWin, it was – ah, it was on his collar actually. Where is his collar? And what did you do to his arm?”
“His arm is broken,” explained Jaehyun. “It’s all in his records, he’ll be in plaster for a while yet. There was an injury to his knee that I should explain as well, and the collar – what was wrong with the collar again? – oh, yes, it was far too tight on him. It was making it harder for him to breathe, so when he panicked and was struggling, I had no choice but to cut it off him. You need to be careful about that, but it’s a common mistake. Is your collar too tight as well?”

Jaehyun addressed the final question at Kun, but the hybrid was not given a chance to answer. “His collar is fine,” interrupted the owner, curtly. “I know how to look after a hybrid, thank you. WinWin’s collar probably got caught on something, or someone else tightened it. I don’t know where he was or what he was doing for these past three weeks since I lost him.”

Taeyong swallowed; it hurt his throat. “How did you lose him?”

“Oh, I took him out to the square like I’d done before and when I went to sit next to the fountain, the damn creature bolted and broke away from his lead. I couldn’t catch up to him, and no one knew where he went. He’s an attractive pedigree though, the best looking one I own, so I assumed someone had taken him once he was on his own. Is that right, WinWin?”

Sicheng did not answer, burying his face in the material of Taeyong’s jacket as he still hid behind him. “Sicheng,” began Taeyong, but he stopped, hesitated. He hated himself, but if Jaehyun was right, then he could not let his opinion of the owner overshadow the fact they had no evidence against him. He was Sicheng’s registered family. “WinWin is scared of water, aren’t you? Just like Kun, you know, from the other day and everything.”

“I remember you from the other day,” nodded the owner. “You are the person to sat next to me at the fountain, are you? You asked me how to look after a pedigree, just because you had a new one. I didn’t expect your new one to be mine.”

Mine – that was the first time that the owner had directly announced his claim over Sicheng, in a horrible and bitter tone which made Taeyong’s blood run cold at the thought of his hybrid, scared of water, and the dark, and sitting on anything that was not a floor, having to be comforted by that tone if at all.

This was the man that Sicheng had called master.

“You don’t have a lead on him,” he continued; if he noticed Taeyong’s glare of disgust towards him, he ignored it. “Especially after he bolted before, I thought that would have just been standard practice.”

“I don’t agree with them,” argued Taeyong. He had not thought about it before, but he could not agree with any form of restraining a hybrid that left an image like Kun, a dejected kitten with his ears dropping and his arm pulled in front of him by an owner who did not seem to notice it would begin to hurt him. “I think they’re unnecessary, especially when you fasten them too tightly. Anyway, I never took WinWin outside so I never saw the point of owning one. Hybrids, especially cat hybrids, are often happier indoors.”

“But no one can admire them indoors,” countered the owner. “I have a spare lead in my car. I am not willing to take WinWin anywhere if I don’t have a tight hold on him. Can I leave Kun here whilst I go and fetch it? It won’t take long, and then we can sign whatever paperwork needs to be signed and I can finally take WinWin home.”

Jaehyun nodded, taking the lead off the owner but releasing it as soon as his back was turned. Kun pulled his arms back to his chest, trying to rub at the point on his wrist where the metal ring – it was a handcuff, there was no more elegant way to describe it – was cutting into his skin. Now that he was closer, Taeyong could see the damage that was being done, including blood stains from where the metal had dug in just too much with a sharp point. With the device still blocking his wrist, Kun could not even find relief when his owner was not pulling on the other end.

Sicheng sobbed; Taeyong could tell he was trying to be quiet, but he could feel the desperate hybrid pulling on his jacket and still trying to hide from the owner that was gone. The choked sound filled the silent reception, and Kun looked up at Taeyong with an expression he was becoming far too acquainted with.

Betrayal.

“You can’t let him go back,” begged Kun, once he was certain that his owner was out of earshot. His Korean was still accented, but it was more fluent than Sicheng’s and every word was easily understood. “Sicheng’s the only one of us that got out, you – you don’t understand, okay? He can’t come back. It’s dangerous!”

Jaehyun placed his elbows on the desk, before leaning his head in his hands and shaking it gently. The same guilt that had begun with Taeyong was no beginning to spread to him. “We haven’t got a choice,” he answered eventually, but Kun did not take this as an answer.

“You have to. Take him away from here now, whilst no one is looking. You can’t let him go back there.”

“We can’t keep a hybrid from their owner unless there is evidence of physical assault.”

“What evidence do you need?”

The desperation in Kun’s voice would have been enough, but Jaehyun knew he would need so much more if he was going to be granted a warrant to confiscate the hybrids owned by the man. “How many of you are there?” he asked, quietly.

“Five,” answered Taeyong, remembering what Sicheng had told him the night before. “There are five of them. All pedigree, even the same breed, I think.”

“With that many, I can launch an investigation. If we find anything, then we can take you and any other hybrid away and re-home you but it isn’t certain. I’m sure that if he throws enough money at a police chief, he’ll be found innocent even if he killed one of his own hybrids in front of him.”

The owner came back, lead in hand, and did not even look at Kun. His attention was on Sicheng, roughly grabbing hold of the arm that was in plaster in a way that caused him to scream out in pain. Whilst Sicheng was distracted by the fire he felt in his right arm, his owner took the chance to tighten the handcuff as far as they would go around his left. The pain was immediate – familiar.

“Can I take him home now?” asked the owner, pulling Sicheng away from the lead to retrieve Kun and then holding the two hybrids together. The man was strong, but even the weakest pull would have been difficult to fight against when every form of resistance cut into his skin where the band lay across his wrist. Sicheng’s face was tear stained, eyes fixed to the floor as if he dared not look up. “Oh, come on and stop crying. I hate your face when you look like that.”

The owner raised his arm, and for a moment Taeyong wondered if they were about to get the evidence they needed, but instead the owner tightened a hand around Sicheng’s throat to lift his chin up and get a good look at the empty space where the collar had been sitting. “We’ll have to get you a new one,” he continued, defeated. When he let go, Sicheng’s face fell again.

Jaehyun ignored it, even though he did not want to. “You proved your ownership with his pedigree registration paper when you arrived so yes, all the formalities are taken care of. We can easily do everything else over the phone, so you can take him now if you want.

“I will, thank you. I don’t trust this boy looking after my pedigree hybrid at all.”

The owner immediately went for the door, dragging both Kun and now Sicheng with enough force to make their faces contort in pain. Kun deliberately glanced at Taeyong, and Taeyong had no choice but to turn away when he saw the betrayal, the pain, in Kun’s green eyes.

WinWin did not even look at him.

Chapter Text

Taeyong clambered into an empty car, something inside him tightening and constricting in a way that he wished would stop as he sat in the driver’s seat and rested his aching head in his hands. It had begun to rain outside, coating the windscreen in tear-drops which fell from the car. If Sicheng’s owner had brought a car, it was long gone; Taeyong was the only car waiting outside the shelter.

He did not drive. Instead, he took his phone and dialled Johnny’s number. It took five heart-wrenching rings before he picked up and, at the sound of Taeyong’s voice thick with held-back tears, asked for an explanation. Taeyong told him everything, from the meeting with Kun at the fountain to the moment Sicheng had been pulled from him by an owner who seemed to not care less that he was in pain. At that point, Taeyong was finally able to pinpoint the emotion that was hurting him – guilty.

When Taeyong asked if he could come round and spend the rest of the afternoon in Johnny’s apartment, Johnny did not hesitate to say yes. Taeyong knew that he could not go home and face his apartment himself with no one there, with Sicheng’s bedroom door still open and the bedsheets still slightly crumpled from the night they had accidentally fallen asleep together.

Taeyong drove there immediately, finding that the car park held as many memories as his apartment did. Johnny opened the door almost as soon as Taeyong had knocked on it, pulling him into an embrace in a greeting that was unusual for their relationship but not unwanted. “It’ll be okay,” reassured Johnny, as Taeyong rested his head on his shoulder and tried to feel something other than guilt and regret building inside him. “Jaehyun was right when he said that you had no other choice, really.”

“What if he gets hurt again?” answered Taeyong, his voice muffled in Johnny’s jacket. “He told me to help him and I just…I just let him go again.”

“You couldn’t look after him forever, you were just looking after him for now. He would have been rehomed eventually, anyway. You did the best you could for him.”

“I didn’t do enough.”

Taeyong pulled away, taking the chance to sit on Johnny’s sofa when he felt his head began to spin. There was a nausea taking over him. “I don’t care how long I had him,” he continued, running a hand through his unkempt hair. “I know it was only two days but if someone says that you need to help them, then you need to do everything you can to make sure you do because you know they’re desperate and I didn’t. I didn’t even listen to Kun, I just…I…I…”

“You need to calm down,” warned Johnny. “You can’t get yourself worked up about this because you can’t do anything. What did Jaehyun say about it? He was going to launch an investigation, yeah? So, he’ll do that and if he finds that this old man is someone evil, the hybrids will be taken off him and they’ll be safe again.”

“Sicheng trusts people too easily,” murmured Taeyong, ignoring Johnny’s attempt at reassurance. “He was so nervous at first. He wouldn’t let anyone touch him and then in the shelter he was always nervous and when I took him home, he started to trust me as soon as I showed I wasn’t going to hurt him and I let him think that was true and then I did this and I don’t deserve to have him trust me every again and he might get hurt and…”

Taeyong was interrupted when a small figure, eyes wide and ears arched backwards in concern, appeared in a bedroom doorway.

“Where’s Sicheng?”

 

WinWin had always hated travelling.

He never felt safe in a car, held to his seat and inside a box that never really felt like it could be escaped. If he spent too long trapped there, surrounded by traffic which could crash into them at any moment with no warning, the familiar panic would begin to rise in his chest and he would tremble until someone would tell him that he was being stupid, childish, overdramatic, pointless, broken. If he was lucky, it would be just words.

He leant his face against the cold glass of the window, letting a trail of condensation settling on his hair before dripping down his face in a cooling glide. It helped, slightly. It numbed the pain that had been throbbing in his head and in turn, it made his breathing slightly easier and his panic disappear just a tiny bit. His owner had not heard him anyway; WinWin had learnt to hide the sound of his panic beneath the loud roar of a car’s engine when his owner was driving. It was easier to hide when he was restrained in the back seat. If they had a driver, if his owner was sat in the back, it became impossible to hide then. That was the type of journey that WinWin dreaded the most.

Kun had reached out and put a hand on WinWin’s shoulder when he had seen the hybrid boy struggling to stay calm, but they owner had glanced in the rear-view mirror and complained until Kun snatched his hand away in fear of a punishment. It was the barking tone that his owner used which scared WinWin the most, the tone always showing a rage that would only increase until someone or something was damaged to relieve it – a wall, a plate, a hybrid, their owner did not care as long as there was destruction he was responsible. It calmed him down when something had not happened exactly as he had wanted it.

It had to be perfect: every action, every object, every tiny little thing had to happen in the exact right way or else it had gone wrong, and if it had gone wrong then it had become dangerous. When WinWin was dragged into the large house he had escaped from, Kun beside him, it was obvious that nothing had changed in his absence. There were still shelves lined with books at very precise angles, a clock that had to be central in the hallway, shoes that had to be kept on a rug by the door and leads – or chains, WinWin was not sure which was most appropriate – that had to be hung up on the exact hook beneath the front window.

There was a routine that had to be followed. WinWin could remember it, it had been so ingrained into his memory from the moment he had arrived in Korea with a punishment waiting if he managed to get any of it wrong. Step into the front door, take off shoes immediately and place them side by side in their exact position in the rug that could never move from its position on the polished wooden floor. Then, wait – hold his arm out for his owner to unlock the handcuff, trying to ignore where it had cut into his skin, and watch as it was hung up until the next time. They could not move until they were dismissed, the front door being locked behind them just in case any hybrid decided that the outside world looked more inviting than what they were given in the house. They had to be silent; every moment, it had to be silent.

Kun was dismissed. He did not even hesitate to look back at WinWin, and WinWin did not blame him. Kun ran up the nearby staircase as soon as he was given permission, heading somewhere – anywhere – that was safe, or quiet, or warm, until his name would be called and he was summoned down again for whatever reason. It was a routine WinWin had wished he never had to grow used to.

He was not dismissed. WinWin was left standing where he was, his breathing growing more difficult as he tried to keep calm and not let it show. He kept his head hung towards the floor, until his owner deliberately placed two fingers beneath his chin and lifted his head so that their eyes met. WinWin wanted to cry, or shut his eyes, or flinch away, but he did not – the outcome of that would only be more undesirable that what was happening now.

Without exchanging a word, his own changed his grasp to onto WinWin’s wrist, pushing down on the wounds on his wrist as he pulled him towards a doorway at the end of the hallway. WinWin recognised this; he fought back this time, mewling and screaming as loud as he could in protest, his feet desperately searching for purpose on the polished wooden floor but only being met with stumbling as he was continually forced forward. His screamed as loud as he could, until the sounds of his distress filled the entire house and his throat burned, tears forming in his eyes.

His attempts meant nothing; his owner easily overpowered the weak, undernourished hybrid. He pulled the door open, effortlessly throwing WinWin inside and almost smiling when he heard the sound of his body falling onto the floor inside. The door was locked behind him.

WinWin was in darkness.

Chapter Text

WinWin scratched at the lock door, mewling as loud as he dared but knowing that no one would come and unlock it, to let him out and stumble back into the light outside. In the basement, it was dark, damp, claustrophobic – everything the small kitten hated. There was a staircase behind him that would lead down; WinWin had been thrown too hard once, falling down and landing on the concrete floor in a way that caused more injury. He had not struggled since then. If you did not struggle, you were never thrown as far.

He could not wait at the top of the staircase. He had tried that before, but if his owner knew that a hybrid would try and dart out as soon as he opened the door, then he just never would. There would be no food, no water, no chance of being released, until you waited in the very depths of the basement like you were supposed to. WinWin had tried several times; he had lost each and every attempt.

He gave in reluctantly, giving one last half-hearted mewl before leaning his head against the wood and pawing at the barricade between him and the outside world. He placed his hand against it one last time and when no one came, he forced himself to turn and make his way into the basement. He was shaky on the stairs, clutching at the wall for support and desperately trying to cling on to the rough surface of the brickwork. There was not a bannister to support the stairs; WinWin could easily have fallen onto the concrete again.
The basement was cold, and dark, but it was not empty. There were a few cardboard boxes that contained old belongings that no longer had a place. There were spider webs in each available space, and an old, broken chair waiting in the corner. There was also a figure, hunched over but wide-eyed, sitting by the wall.

“Why didn’t he tie you up when you’ve already run away once?”

Despite everything, WinWin found a smile growing on his face at the familiar Mandarin that echoed off the stone walls. It explained why the figure was hunched over; there was a metal ring on the floor, used to tie hybrids so that they couldn’t even try and make a mistake. It would be the same handcuff-like chains used on the leads, only on both wrists and usually somehow tighter. They did not hurt unless you moved; it was easier to sit or lie still, stay quiet, and hope that someone would let you free eventually. It was not as if being tied up was unfamiliar. If there was a building or place where hybrids were not allowed, it was easier to tie a hybrid up outside to wait than it was to try and bring them in. It was common; WinWin did not see it as wrong.

“What did you do for him to tie you up?”

WinWin’s voice was hoarse from screaming, but there was something that felt soft about being able to speak in his native language. The words felt familiar, natural. He did not have to desperately think about every sentence he constructed.

“What do you think I did?” replied Yukhei; even though his figure looked defeated, WinWin could see the smirk on his face once his eyes adjusted to the darkness. “I didn’t answer to my name again.”

“He’ll do this every time you ignore him.”

“I don’t care. He can chain me up as much as he wants to. I’m not answering to Lucas. And I’m not calling him master either.”

WinWin liked Yukhei; there was something about him, something rebellious and fire-like that he knew their master would hate, and that made Yukhei instantly likeable. The day when their master had returned from China with Yukhei in tow had been one of WinWin’s favourites. He had expected another quiet, submissive hybrid who spoke no Korean, but Yukhei had only been in the house for two hours before he had scratched his new owner across the face and been confined to the basement. It was a new record; it made WinWin admire him.

“You have to listen to him at some point,” warned WinWin, but Yukhei just laughed.

“No,” he answered; there was strength in his voice. “I’m not going to. He can keep me locked down here forever if he wants to. It’ll be better than being up there with him. Why did you even come back?”

A blush began to burn on WinWin’s cheeks. He did not know if Yukhei would be able to see it in the dark shadows of the basement, but he lowered his head anyway just in case. When he sat on the floor, the concrete was cold enough to send a chill running through him. “How long have you been down here?” he asked, instead.

“That’s not what I asked you, Sicheng.”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Did he catch you again?”

WinWin bit his lip, hard enough for the metallic taste of blood to spread over his tongue. “No,” he answered, slowly. There was a clanging of metal chains as Yukhei moved, trying to get closer.

“Are you okay?” he asked, his voice cooling from its usual fire into a reassuring tone that Yukhei only usually reserved for the younger hybrids, the kittens. “He didn’t hurt you, did he? Or do anything to you?”

“No,” answered WinWin, honestly. “Not yet.”

“Wherever you went, where you were hiding – you were safe, right?”

“Yes,” murmured WinWin, but Yukhei’s continued silence was enough to say that he was not happy with that for an answer. “I was outside at first, but only for a week or so. Someone found me and I couldn’t fight back, they took me to a shelter and that – it was safe but it was awful, Yukhei. There were so many people and I didn’t know what was happening and everyone kept trying to talk to me and I didn’t understand anyone and they thought I was doing it deliberately but…but then the person who rescued me came back, and he let me live with him.”

“He was nice, right?”

WinWin blushed again. “He gave me ice-cream. And he stayed with me when it was dark. And I didn’t have to call him master.”

“There are people who don’t make you do that?”

Yukhei seemed surprised; WinWin understood the shock in his voice. He had felt the same when Taeyong had first told him. “Really, there are,” he continued, nodding his head.

“What did you have to call him then?”

“Taeyong-hyung.”

The name felt strange to say to someone else. WinWin had found it comforting before, like a lifeline, but now it felt tainted. The excitement that had found its way into his voice faded when he had to give a name to a man who had kept him safe. Somehow, those memories felt as if they were already beginning to fade.

Yukhei tilted his head. “Why did he let you come back?” he asked. “He seems nice, like an owner everyone wants to have. I might even have let him call me Lucas.”

“He called me Sicheng all the time,” murmured WinWin. “I thought he liked having me there. I – I don’t know why he gave me back.”

Yukhei could tell from WinWin’s falling tone that the conversation was about to bring the smaller hybrid to tears. “Next time you run away,” he tried, a smile on his face. “You have to take me with you. I couldn’t believe it when Kun told me. There haven't been any windows left unlocked ever since you climbed out of one. It’s going to get so hot when it gets to summer.”

“I’ll take you with me next time,” answered WinWin, a smirk on his face despite the tear rolling down his cheek. “If you’re not still in the basement when I go.”

Chapter Text

Taeyong had never thought his apartment could feel so empty. He had lived in it alone since he bought it just over nine months ago, a small place with an extra bedroom in case he ever wanted to convert it into his own photo studio. He had rented it out to a friend once, Taeil – someone quiet, someone who Taeyong trusted, but still someone that felt like an invasion of privacy. It had been a mutual agreement when Taeil moved out. Taeyong had no disliked him, but he liked being alone.

Now, his apartment was empty which was supposed to be how he wanted it. There was no one to distract him, to make him feel as if he was not allowed to be himself, and yet it felt different. There were still creases in the covers of the bed where he had fallen asleep alongside his kitten that first night. The towel that he had placed around Sicheng’s neck when he washed his hair still hung up in the bathroom. On the drying rack, there were still two spoons, two bowls, two plates. Everything seemed like there was supposed to be someone else there, and Taeyong hadn’t minded it.

He put the cutlery away first, finding himself making as much noise with the cheap metal and plastic as he could as he shoved it back into cupboards. Then, he took the towel and through it straight into his washing machine even though there was no other laundry. When it was dry, he needed to put it back into its cupboard where it would wait, forgotten, until Taeyong needed an extra for whatever reason.

It was hardest to go into Sicheng’s room, to see the dent in his pillow where he had once rested his head. To Taeyong, it felt like he was intruding even though it was his home. He wanted to stand at the door, to ask Sicheng softly if he was allowed to come inside, but there was no one there who could answer. Taeyong had never been sentimental before; he smoothed out the blankets and duvet to remove the creases, plumped up the pillows until they showed no sign of anyone having slept there.

He still had Sicheng’s papers; his age, his injuries, his breed, everything was listed on the handful of notes that Jaehyun had given him once he agreed to take the small hybrid home. He did not want to throw those away, not just yet. If he still had this information, then there was the tiniest chance where a time might come when he had the pet again. Instead of leaving them on the kitchen table, he folded them into an envelope and buried them in his bottom drawer. If he needed them, he knew where they were. If he never needed them again, he could forget about them and pretend that the two days he had spent with Sicheng had never happened.

His phone rang; the vibrating noise on the glass coffee table was enough to make Taeyong’s heart miss a beat.

“I need you to do a favour for me,” asked Jaehyun, as soon as Taeyong had placed the phone to his ear and greeted with a tentative hello. “It won’t take long, I promise. It’s for WinWin.”

“He liked to be called Sicheng,” answered Taeyong, once he had swallowed to remove the lump in his throat.

“Sicheng, then,” corrected Jaehyun. “I talked to another shelter, run by someone called Seokmin. I don’t know him that well, but he knows a thing or two about pedigree so I called him when I first took in Sicheng to check something with him. He has one in his shelter at the moment, a Korean purebred who was left by a woman. She was moving, couldn’t take him with her. Anyway, there’s a man who showed interest because he said the woman was his sister and he knew the hybrid already. He said he’d have to wait though, because he was looking for another hybrid who he’d lost.”

Taeyong bit his lip. “You think it might be Sicheng’s owner?”

“Well, Seokmin asked if he had any experience with pedigree hybrids before, and the man said he already owned five. That’s the same amount, right? It’s possible, and if I can find out his name, it will make that investigation I promised a lot easier.”

“Can you get him out of there?”

Taeyong did not like the way that Jaehyun sighed, or the pause before he started speaking again. “Well,” he began, and Taeyong could hear a tinge of regret in his soft tone. “This is someone who already owns five pedigree hybrids, hyung. Do you know how expensive they are? To buy one like Sicheng, it would probably cost more than we will ever make. If we do try and make an accusation, he’ll have such good lawyers. We need evidence that he’s actually hurting them before we can take them away, but the good news is that if we see any evidence of physical abuse on any of them, I can take all of the hybrids out of there, no questions asked.”

“That doesn’t sound like good news,” murmured Taeyong. He did not want Sicheng to have to wait until Jaehyun was able to witness whatever had made him so scared to go back.
“Did you take any photos of Sicheng whilst he was there?” asked Jaehyun, ignoring Taeyong’s comment. “If we have evidence of his injury…”

“No,” interrupted Taeyong. He had not taken a single picture of Sicheng in the short time they had been together; he suddenly regretted it. Jaehyun sighed again.

“You take photos of everything, but not him? It doesn’t matter – just, whilst you still can, can you write me a list of everything you noticed about him? I just need some evidence that he wasn’t…what we expected, yeah? Any tiny little thing that made you suspicious, and then I’ll see if I can get a warrant for a house visit.”

Jaehyun hung up; he was not one for goodbyes. The instruction he had given stuck in Taeyong’s mind, and he took a pen and a notepad with him to the kitchen table where he had first eaten with Sicheng. What was it that had concerned him?

There was his broken arm; Taeyong could not say for sure if that was anything to do with his former owner, but he did not want to leave anything to chance. Sicheng was also scared of being touched, scared of water, scared of the dark, scared of doing anything that he did not have explicit permission to do – when Taeyong looked back, he could see it clearly when he strung it together. The tiniest, most mundane things had frightened the small hybrid until he would tremble and panic.

Taeyong did not want to imagine what was happening to him now.

Chapter Text

WinWin stood as still as his trembling body would allow, hands held above his head beginning to lower by themselves because he just could not hold them there any longer. When his owner looked at him, a gaze that burnt like fire, WinWin forced himself to straighten them again, holding his breath as his chest began to tighten. He wanted to stay strong; the kitten beside him was not doing as well.

Chenle was smaller than him, weaker, and the strength of holding his arms up in the air had caused tear streaks across his chin as he desperately held his breath in an attempt not to sob. WinWin wanted to reach out and try to be some sort of comfort, like Kun had always been to him, but the gaze of their owner kept flicking back to them and he knew it would not be worth the punishment.

WinWin preferred the basement.

“Don’t lower your arms, WinWin,” called their owner, in a sing-song voice that WinWin detested. If he was not barking orders, then the cheerful nature of the man he had to call ‘master’ was insulting. WinWin wanted to respond with violence, a scratch across his face, but he was not Yukhei; he did not have the courage, the strength or even the motivation to move. He continued standing where he was, straightening his arms the tiniest amount.

It was not enough. Their owner moved away from the bookshelf he had been organised, walking with deliberate movements as WinWin looked towards the floor to avoid his eyeline. When he reached him, his owner placed his hand beneath his chin and pushed his head gently upwards until WinWin had no other choice except to look directly at him, tears beginning to brim at his own eyes as Chenle finally broke into a sob next to him.

The touch sent an electric shock across his skin, especially as the hand moved from his chin and began to stroke the soft skin across his chin. WinWin wanted to pull away, but he knew that it would only get worse if he did not endure this now. Yukhei had been in the basement for three days now; WinWin did not want to join him.

“Chenle,” murmured their owner, seeming to almost find joy in the pain of the younger hybrid. “You can put your arms down now. Run off, go have fun. You won’t ever forget to address me properly again, will you?”

“No,” answered Chenle, his voice broken by a flow of tears.

“No, what?”

“No, master.”

Their owner nodded, and with a sigh of relief Chenle brought down his arms and instantly turned his back to run. He did not look back; WinWin was used to it. They were close, all five of them, but they were all smart enough to know that they needed to look out for themselves. “You can put your arms down too, WinWin,” said his owner, and although his voice was soft it held a warning that WinWin did not want to tempt. He lowered his arms slowly, his owner reaching out to grab hold of his wrist and dig into his skin with sharp fingernails. “You won’t ever forget either, will you?”

He knew that an answer was expected, but WinWin did not want to give him one. He tried to pull his arm away, but the grip only tightened until he had no choice but to hold it there. When the silence continued, his owner did not let go.

WinWin had not done this before. He did not look away, glaring at his owner with the same fire that he had been watched with every minute of every day since he arrived there. “Are you not going to answer me?”

“No.”

His throat burned as he spoke; he did not like speaking much, having screamed his throat raw at the door of the basement on his first day back at the building he was supposed to call him. There was a flash in his owner’s eyes, a moment of something unexpected as WinWin thought he saw something that he had never seen before – weakness. His owner had not been expecting the answer from the hybrid that had always been his most obedient, most well-behaved and even more, he had not been expecting the answer to come in Mandarin. Any language other than Korean was banned in their household.

“Well, isn’t that a shame?” crooned his owner, once the weakness faded and he was left with the usual heart-less disregard for his pet. “You know I don’t like doing this, don’t you, WinWin?”

“Sicheng.”

WinWin was not even certain that this voice was his anymore; it did not sound like something he would say. He could feel his breath beginning to catch in his chest again.

“What did you say?”

“My name is Sicheng.”

His jaw hurt from how tightly he was gritting his teeth, tension running through his body as much as panic. He did not fight when he was pulled forward, giving into the strength. “I knew this would happen,” sighed his owner, not caring when WinWin’s feet stumbled on the crossover between a wooden floor and kitchen tile. “If you don’t stay in this house, there’s all sorts of things that will happen to you. You got hurt, didn’t you? Someone hurt your wrist, just one example. And they taught you all sorts of things that just aren’t right.”

WinWin did not listen; the words meant nothing to him anyway. Now, however, under the fluorescent lights of the kitchen, he began to try and pull away. His feet fought for purchase on the polished tile, finding it impossible to make an escape. “You’re not a normal hybrid,” continued his owner. “They can’t treat you like they treat the others, like the ones in that shelter. You’re different. You have to be pretty, you have to be respectful, you have to do exactly what I say, WinWin.”

The kitchen sink was already full of water. WinWin finally cried out as loud as he could, ignoring the burning sensation in his throat as he did everything in his pull away. When he fell, his owner simply wrapped another hand around his waist to force him to stand up straight. WinWin pushed against the counter to try and get away, but his owner was stronger.

“You’ll listen to me from now on, won’t you?” crooned his owner, securing a hand on the bank of WinWin’s head. Before WinWin could even try and think of an answer, his head was forced under the water and held there until his lungs burnt for air, his eyes swum and he desperately kicked out behind him in the hope of being freed.

Chapter Text

Taeyong had lived in his apartment to be used to everything it had to offer: the way the sound of the traffic would rattle the windows, the way the heating would shut off at the same time each night and plunge the rooms into freezing temperatures, the way the footsteps from the people below would make dull echoes through their carpeted floor. These tiny things, the parts of the apartment that gave it the unique character Taeyong had fallen in love with, had never kept him awake before.

Now, with his eyes open and burning as he struggled to find the motivation to shut them, Taeyong could hear every sound. He shivered as the apartment grew colder, the metal clanging of the radiator system contracting as it cooled filling his small room every few minutes, just as he was about to drift off to sleep. He had not noticed it before, but now it was the only thing he could notice, accompanied with distant vehicles and muffled voices from above him.

If Sicheng was still here – Taeyong hated to think like that, but he knew there was nothing he could do to stop himself once he was this tired – he could tell why the small kitten would have been scared of the dark. It stretched out as if it was endless, hiding things that even Taeyong knew were safe and he still felt uneasy. Sicheng would never have stood a chance, alone in a strange environment with strange noises when he was already at his most vulnerable.

Taeyong had never felt alone in his apartment before, but he did tonight. He pulled the bed covers as tight as he could around himself but the cold still creeped in, taunting him and reminding him that he was alone without anyone warm lying beside him like they had done for two entire nights in a row. He was supposed to be working tomorrow, but another day standing in an empty photography studio with nothing but Doyoung firing intrusive questions at him was something he dreaded. He was too tired for that; it must have been three, nearly four in the morning. He would just have to call in sick.

He did feel sick; he had wondered if he was struggling to sleep just because of the guilt at first, but now Taeyong realised that there might have been something else. He had a dull headache, a feeling of nausea washing over him if he moved for too long. He did not have time to get ill, but if there was a reason for him feeling like he did, a reason that could be fixed, then he felt almost relieved. He almost wished for an illness to overcome him so he had an excuse to stay in bed and pull the covers over his eyes when the sunlight got too strong.

He had an excuse to not face his empty apartment.

 

Jaehyun felt a pang of jealousy as he entered the reception area of a rival shelter. He knew that he was not supposed to consider them a rival – they were working for the same cause, funded by the same government – but it was impossible to not feel bitter when he saw that this place was clearly far more well equipped whilst his own shelter was on the verge of being closed down.

“Jaehyun!” called a voice, a smiling face greeting him as Jaehyun desperately tried to grin back. “I was beginning to wonder if you were coming.”

“Traffic,” tried Jaehyun, but he did not drive. He had walked there, he had just delayed it as much as he could. “It’s good to see you, Seokmin.”

“You wanted to see him, right?” asked Seokmin as he came out from behind his desk; Jaehyun was beginning to wonder if he ever stopped smiling. “He’s out back. I’m not keeping him with any others at the moment so he’s been lonely, but he’s always been on his own from what I was told. It’s just that I know pedigrees can be a little unpredictable, and I’m not sure how he’d react to the others.”

Seokmin held a door open and gestured for Jaehyun to walk through first, the familiar sight of hybrids hoping to be greeted by potential owners meeting him as he looked down the corridor littered with doors and windows. “What did you say his name was again?” asked Jaehyun, waiting for Seokmin to catch him up. “You mentioned it over the phone, but I didn’t catch it.”

“Jungwoo,” confirmed Seokmin. “He’s definitely a pedigree because his old owner gave me the papers when she handed him over. You don’t see many Korean pedigrees in shelters, do you? Usually, they just stay between breeders and the people who want to buy them. Here, on the left.”

It did not take official paperwork to tell that Jungwoo was a pedigree hybrid; after seeing Sicheng and now Kun, Jaehyun had grown used to the almost ethereal beauty that surrounded the hybrids who had been born with the purpose of simply looking pretty. There was a distant, almost whimsical look, in Jungwoo’s chocolate eyes, his cheek bones accentuated by the whiskers on his face. “Someone spent money on him,” commented Jaehyun, nodding to the enhancements that were not found on a normal hybrid kitten. “I mean, with whiskers like that…”

“He’s declawed too,” added Seokmin. “I don’t know how someone can spend so much money on their pet like that. I sometimes even wonder if the hybrid even agrees to it, or if they just get taken someone and suddenly waking up a lot different than how they fell asleep.”

Jaehyun did not want to think about that. The world of pedigree hybrids had always intimidated him; the rules were somehow different, the social boundary seeming like it would throw him out for not being able to afford all of the extra things you were supposed to be able to if you owned a hybrid. It had been why he had opened a shelter and not encountered a breeder. “And the person that’s adopting him,” continued Jaehyun, not taking his eyes off Jungwoo. By now, the hybrid had noticed him and begun to stare curiously back; his fur was a light brown, almost like the colour of honey. “You said that Jungwoo already knows him?”

“Jungwoo was originally owned by his sister,” explained Seokmin. “She moved to America, I think. Wherever she went, she couldn’t take Jungwoo with her, and she wanted to make sure that her brother definitely wanted to take him so she left him here. Her brother had an issue with one of his hybrids, so it was delayed but he’s coming to look at Jungwoo later today. I don’t know how Jungwoo will get on with others, though.”

Jaehyun bit his lip. By now, Jungwoo was definitely staring at him. “He lost one of his other hybrids,” answered Jaehyun, forcing himself to turn back to Seokmin who had finally lost his smile. “He said that he bolted after being spooked when they were in public, which isn’t impossible. The hybrid ended up with me, and he took him back just the other day. It was a Chinese pedigree that time, and according to him, he’s got five of them already.”

“Five?”

“Yeah, all declawed and with whiskers just like Jungwoo. I don’t know how anyone affords that.”

Seokmin shook his head slightly. “Does he realise that Jungwoo’s been an only hybrid?” he asked, and Jaehyun could do nothing but shrug. “I don’t know how he’ll cope if he’s suddenly surrounded by them. You know other hybrids can make them nervous. And all of his others are Chinese?”

Jaehyun nodded, his expression dark. “I’m looking further into it and to be honest, I think the number of hybrids is the least of our worries.”

Chapter Text

“Come here,” murmured Kun, wrapping an arm around a shivering Renjun as the smaller kitten buried his head in the warmth of his jacket. “Get closer, it’ll keep you warm. Here.”

The older hybrid shrugged the jacket from his shoulders, wrapping it around Renjun and fastening the buttons to make sure it was held tightly as the younger laid his head down on his lap. WinWin pressed his own hand against their small radiator that was supposed to heat their attic bedroom, but it was still stone cold. The twisted wiring had finally failed, leaving the attic unheated in the autumn air. It was worse for the underfed kittens, Chenle pushing himself closer to Sicheng in the hope of staying warmer. Yukhei was still in the basement; it was probably colder there.

“Can’t we go downstairs where it’s warmer?” tried Winwin, keeping one arm around Chenle and one messing with the uncomfortably tight collar that had been fitted around his neck that afternoon. “If he’s sleeping, I mean. He won’t know.”

Kun shook his head. “I don’t want to risk it, not with the little ones as well. He might wake up.”

“And what if he does? He’ll just lock us in the basement, it’s not that bad down there and…”

WinWin trailed off, watching Kun’s face fall and his eyeliner drop to tracing the pattern of the dust on the floorboards. “He got worse, after you left,” he explained, his voice quiet as the colour seemed to drain from his cheeks. “When he realised he could lose us, he didn’t want to let any of us out of his sight. He didn’t let us go outside for so long and he made our leads tighter and if we broke any of the rules…”

WinWin did not want to hear more; he distracted himself by running his fingers through the soft fur on Chenle’s ears. “Oh,” he murmured when Kun stopped speaking, watching Chenle’s breathing slow as he drifted off into sleep. “I didn’t know.”

“Of course you didn’t know, you weren’t here to see it.”

He tried to ignore the bitter tone in Kun’s voice, but WinWin was aware of it as soon as he began speaking. It felt easier not to reply, so he did not. Kun tilted his head. “Why didn’t you tell that guy what it was like here?” he asked, interrogating WinWin in a way he finally felt angry enough to do. “You could have gotten us all out of here if you’d thought about it.”

“I did try!” protested WinWin. “I told him everything, he knew. He didn’t want to send me back. You tried as well and you saw it wasn’t going to do anything.”
“He wanted to send you back,” retorted Kun, volume creeping into his voice that prompted Renjun to move his hands over his ears as he tried to sleep. “If he really liked you, don’t you think he would have kept you? You weren’t anything to him. You were just a pet.”

Bowing his head so that Kun would not have the satisfaction of seeing the tears brimming in the corner of his eyes, WinWin bit down on his lip. “No,” he argued. “Taeyong-hyung wasn’t like that, I promise. He’ll come back for me.”
Kun scowled. “Just because you didn’t have to call him master, it doesn’t make him some kind of magic saviour. He’s not coming back for any of us.”

 

Taeyong spent another night alone, the covers wrapped tightly around him to offer some comfort even though the heating in his apartment meant that he was far too warm. He wanted to feel as if the bed was entirely his, not that it was missing someone, or that a room down his apartment’s hallways was missing an inhabitant. It was not late enough yet; Sicheng would still have been up at his window, staring at the moving cars he could see through the glass.

He gave up, letting the duvet fall from his shoulders as he sat up in the bed and ran a hand through his hair. His phone told him that it was already four in the morning, only a few more hours before he had to leave for work even if he had not slept at all. Taeyong had already realised that his difficulty in sleeping came more from guilt rather than longing for his old hybrid; whenever he closed his eyes, he was met with the same darkness that he knew terrified Sicheng.

There had to be a reason for each one of Sicheng’s fears and uncertainties, ones that he had almost certainly faced at whatever home he had been dragged off to in a contraption that was no better than handcuffs. The dark, water, meeting new people – they were all thing that were part of Sicheng’s personal form of torture, that would send him spiralling into a panic when he thought he could not escape them. Taeyong could not even bear to think of what situations he might be forced into.

Knowing that he would be sleeping, Taeyong still could not stop himself from typing a message to Jaehyun in the hope of finding information. He spent time over how he formed each word in an attempt to sound hurried but not desperate, even though he was sure it was impossible to not sound desperate when he was sending a message to his friend at twenty minutes past four in the morning. He settled on something simple – “did you find anything else?”

Taeyong did not get a reply. He did not expect one, but that did not stop him from checking his phone every few minutes as he dampened his hair in a cold shower and poured a bowl of cereal to force himself to sit down and have some sense of normality. It tasted like cardboard as he endlessly chewed, even though it was supposed to be covered in sugar. It was the kind of thing Sicheng had enjoyed; sweet, full of colour and probably not the best thing to use to start a day.

Jaehyun finally replied at five in the morning, using a simple “nope” to crush Taeyong’s hope of having any chance to going back to how things were before. He replied with a second text, elaborating with “there’s nothing yet but I’ll check his house over if I can – I don’t think I’ll find anything though.”

Taeyong did not even reply. He let his spoon fall back into the bowl, before pushing his chair back to place it in the sink even though it was still half full. He almost jumped himself when he turned the tap and the sound of water filled the apartment, taking the time to splash his face in the hope of trying to calm himself down. He was interrupted by his ringtone.

He almost did not answer, but Jaehyun’s smiling picture on his caller ID convinced Taeyong to pick up and finally murmur a ‘hello’ into the speaker.
“How are you doing?” answered Jaehyun, and Taeyong shook his head before he remembered that he could not be seen.

“Why are you up so early?” he tried.

“I have to get over to the shelter to check them over, and I have a couple of meetings later which might lead to adoptions so I need to finish some paperwork. I just wanted to know if you’d thought about the hybrid situation anymore.”

“What do you mean?”

“You liked having Sicheng there. You always seemed lonely, hyung. I wanted to make you take a hybrid before, but it took Sicheng to convince you and you were so much happier. I just wanted to know if you’d considered having another one. We still have some amazingly pretty cat, hybrids, you know.”

“No.”

It came across harsher than Taeyong expected, but he did not back away or apologise. Instead, he lowered his volume and added “I just want Sicheng back.”

Jaehyun sighed. “I don’t think I can do that for you.”

Chapter Text

It had become a tradition that whenever a new hybrid was bought home, those who already lived in the house would hide at the top of the stairs and watch them without being seen by their master. It had started with Kun who had been intrigued when he had been told there would be a companion for him, and WinWin had noticed him watching him through the handrail of the bannister. Then, Renjun had been next; WinWin and Kun had held hands when they watched the new kitten being dragged into the house mewling.

Chenle had been the worst, much smaller than their owner and clearly pulling against his grip as he tried to escape out of the front door with tears running down his cheeks and screaming obscenities in whatever Chinese he could muster. Yukhei, on the other hand, had almost been fun to watch. He did not cry, or scream – he simply attacked his new owner at the first chance he got and was not even released from his lead before being thrown straight into the darkness known as the basement.

Their owner had warned them of an incoming ‘companion’ before he disappeared that morning. For once, he was not flying to China on a trip that would take a few days. Those were the best days; the hybrids had the house to themselves with no rules or anyone to stop them from doing whatever they wanted to. This time, however, their companion would be Korean.

“I’m hoping that he’ll be able to teach you,” he had commented, the hybrids he already owned lined up in the hallway as he pulled a jacket over his shoulders and prepared to leave. “I promised my sister I’d take him and obviously he’s not my usual type, but he’s a pedigree and I know he’s pretty. If he speaks Korean around you, perhaps you’ll be able to pick it up faster. I’m fed up of hearing Mandarin in my house.”

The last comment was pointedly directly at both WinWin and Yukhei, who had found learning the foreign language much harder no matter how long they had lived there. WinWin tried not to take it as a personal insult.

Having heard the noise of their owner’s car pulling into the gravel driveway, the hybrids had all gathered together on the staircase again. It was a very specific spot, where they could watch the door with interest whilst knowing it was unlikely that their owner would turn around and notice them. Kun had wrapped his arm around Chenle’s shoulders, something he had done to WinWin on the first time they sat there together, and Renjun had leant back against WinWin’s folded legs.

WinWin himself kept his hand to his mouth, nervously chewing on his nails which was a habit he had spiralled into after being adopted. Yukhei kept himself separate from the small group, pressed directly against the banister with an eagerness not to miss anything of a new hybrid’s arrival. Up until that point, he had been the new one. This was the first time he would witness this.

The sound of their master’s key in the door was a familiar one, one that almost sent fear shooting through the hybrids in case they were found doing something that they should not have been. He entered first, followed by an unfamiliar hybrid held on a chain who was unfamiliar with the strict ritual of entering the house under such conditions. He fought back against the pull of the chain, but only half-heartedly.

“Jungwoo,” scolded their owner, watching the hybrid jump at his harsh voice with a sickening curiosity. “Take your shoes off before you step off the mat. You need to get used to this.”

Jungwoo glared at his new owner with a look like ice, before reluctantly following the instruction he was given after being coaxed through a pull of the chain. The other hybrids watched him wide-eyed; Jungwoo was no different to any other hybrid that had been bought home. Even at first glance, it was clear that he was beyond the typical level of beauty usually found in hybrids. The soft black fur of his ears matched the colour of his hair perfectly, almost a crown on a perfectly structured face.

When he looked back up from taking off his shoes, his eyeline fell directly on the cluster of hybrids watching him from above. It was clear for a moment that Jungwoo was counting, his mind trying to comprehend a group of five pedigrees sitting together on the stairs after being the only hybrid for so long in his previous home.

“Jungwoo,” interrupted their master, Jungwoo shaking his head slightly as he moved his head to respond to his name. “You need to listen to me. Put your shoes on the mat to you left, next to the other pairs. They have to stay there at all times.”

Jungwoo followed the instruction with a scowl, staying kneeling until his shoes were in the exact position they had to be and he was pulled to his feet again by the chain still attached by his wrist. He cried out when the metal band cut into his skin after one particularly harsh movement, cradling his wrist to his chest. “Don’t cry,” ordered their master, his tone harsh rather than comforting. “I can’t stand to see my hybrids cry. It just absolutely ruins your appearance, and you want to be pretty, don’t you?”

Jungwoo stayed silent; he did not cry, but he stared. He knew that he was being watched and he could not tell if showing weakness would be something that would ruin him in this crucial moment. “I want you to answer me,” demanded the taller man. “I told you this in the car, Jungwoo. If I ask you a question, you have to address me and answer me straight away. You want to be pretty, don’t you?”

There was a flash of rebellion behind Jungwoo’s eyes and for a moment, WinWin wondered if he was going to witness another Yukhei-style introduction. Instead, Jungwoo bowed his head and murmured a quiet “yes” with a tone that suggested defeat.

“Yes, what?”

Jungwoo scowled.

“Yes, master.”

Their owner seemed satisfied, ordering Jungwoo to stretch out his arm so that he could remove the lead and leave him to cradle the wounds it had caused to his chest, staining his shirt with spots of blood. Once he was alone, their owner retreating to wherever he wanted to hide in the large house, Jungwoo finally broke down in tears despite the people he knew were watching him.

He hated it there already.

Chapter Text

Taeyong ran a nervous hand through his newly dyed hair, the pink tinge different from what he had been used to and that was all he wanted. “It looks fine,” reassured Johnny. Taeyong had asked him to come and help him with the dye in the hope that a change would make him feel better. Johnny had been almost no use other than offering some compliments when Taeyong had second thoughts about the cherry blossom colour. “Honestly, it’s really good on you. You’ve always suited lighter colours.”

“You don’t think,” Taeyong hesitated, trying to find the words. “You don’t think it’s too much like candyfloss?”

“It looks a little bit like candyfloss,” shrugged Johnny, reaching out to tame the hairstyle after Taeyong was done playing with it. “I mean, not too much. It’s kind of like strawberry ice-cream. It just looks sweet.”

Taeyong sighed; he did not exactly want to be reminded of strawberry ice-cream when he had been doing the best he could to distract himself.

“Can we do my hair like that, hyung?” asked Ten, the hybrid watching from the sofa when he had grown bored of whatever drama had been shown on the screen.

“You’d have to bleach it though, Ten. It’ll hurt your ears and it might damage your fur. I don’t want to be responsible for that.”

Johnny turned away from his friend to join his hybrid on the sofa, ruffling the hair behind Ten’s ears in a way that made him lean into his owner and smile brightly. “We could maybe do something with it,” continued Johnny. “If we don’t bleach your whole head, we could avoid your ears. We need your black hair to match your fur, anyway. We could go red, maybe? I think red would look good in your hair. Taeyong, what do you think?”

Taeyong did not turn around, still looking at his hair in the mirror. He did not dislike it, but the idea of strawberry ice cream was not leaving his mind now that the seed had been planted.

“Taeyong?”

This time, he finally heard Johnny calling him and he turned around with a wide-eyed expression that proved he had not been listening. Johnny rolled his eyes. “What do you think we should do with Ten’s hair?”

For a moment, Taeyong looked at the hybrid with a cocked head as Ten leant on the arm of the sofa and waited anxiously for his answer.

“I think Ten should choose to look however the hell he wants.”

 

Jungwoo only attempted to hide his tears when he noticed the collection of hybrids edging down the stairs to get closer to him, moving like a pack who were cautious to let in a newcomer. He pressed his palms against his eyes, wiping his sleeves against his cheeks to hide any traces of tears as the stairs creaked under the movement.

“You can cry if you want,” murmured Kun, leaning across the bannister as Chenle and Renjun watched through the woodwork. Winwin held back, waiting a few steps behind with Yukehi. “It’s fine. We don’t mind if you cry.”

“He doesn’t like it though,” argued Jungwoo. “You heard him, he said…”

“You only have to care about what he says when he’s actually watching,” explained Kun. He moved closer to Jungwoo, hiding his own hand in his sleeve and reaching up to wipe the tear trails away by himself. Jungwoo did not flinch, watching the Chinese hybrid closely. “If you break the rules when he’s watching then I’m not going to be held responsible for what happens to you but when you’re around us, it’s fine.”

“You won’t tell him?” asked Jungwoo, timidly.

“Of course not,” reassured Kun, as if he was insulted that Jungwoo would even think that. “We’re locked in here together so if we started getting each other into trouble, it would be hell. Anyway, we get into enough trouble without helping each other out with that.”

“What do I have to do? To not get into trouble, I mean.”

“Do what he says. Go to him when he calls you. Don’t mess anything up, and always stay quiet because otherwise he gets mad, and it’s not great when he’s mad. If you’re lucky, he’ll put you in the basement. You can ask Yukhei about that, he knows it better than the rest of us.”

Yukhei smiled, but it was barely a smirk tinged with bitterness at the thought of his own reputation. “Anyway,” continued Kun. “What did he tell you? Did he tell you the rules or do we have to do a full-blown orientation now?”

“He told me I couldn’t go in certain rooms,” explained Jungwoo, his eyes squinting with the effort it took to remember the overload of information that he had been told. “And that I can’t go outside, or open windows, or eat anything other than what I get given. And you, you’re – he said you were Chinese, that I shouldn’t…”

“Don’t let him tell you what you shouldn’t do,” interrupted Kun. “We’re you’re friends, right? When he went out to get you, he said that he considered taking you because you might teach us Korean. I’m the one talking to you because I’m pretty fluent. The others – well, they struggle sometimes. You have to be ready to repeat yourself. We used to talk in Mandarin but now you’re here…”

“You can still speak Chinese if you want,” answered Jungwoo, hurriedly. “I’ll…I’ll learn it, if you speak it enough.”

“You don’t have to worry about us. You’re just here to be pretty, like the rest of us. You’ll be good at that anyway. It’s the only thing any of us are good at.”

Chapter Text

Jaehyun hesitated before knocking on the door, his fist hovering in the air away from the wooden barricade between him and the large house that waited at the address he had been given. The expensive car on the driveway had offered some indication of who he was dealing with, someone who probably had more money and influence than Jaehyun would ever experience in his entire lifetime. The house itself was too quiet for somewhere that was supposed to house six hybrids; whenever Jaehyun had done a house check before, there had been some noise. Hybrids were never entirely silent.

This house, however, waited without a word. Jaehyun interrupted it by knocking on the door as loud as he could, his pounding against the wood barely making a dent in the hallway of the building. He waited, pushing his hands into his pocket to prevent himself from knocking again when he was not instantly given an answer. He had not expected to feel this nervous, or this anxious, but he felt as if something higher riding on this single visit. Usually, Jaehyun only found himself looking over a house to check whether it was a suitable environment for a hybrid, or to see if a hybrid had settled in. He had never tried to take one away before.

The front door creaked when it was pulled open, a tired looking older man seeming insignificant under the over-elaborate entrance way. He looked Jaehyun from the tip of his feet up to his unkempt hair and took in his appearance as if it was the only thing that mattered. “Can I help you?” he asked, eventually, with a voice that was softer than Jaehyun remembered from the time he had encountered him in the hybrid shelter.

“I was told I had to come and look over your home,” explained Jaehyun, trying not to show any sign of the nervousness that was beginning to overtake him. “There were reports of you having a lot of hybrids, and being around others can stress them out sometimes. We need to make sure it’s a safe environment for them but, well, I don’t think we’ll have an issue. It’s a formality, mainly.”

Jaehyun ended his speech with what he hoped was a welcoming smile, but the man did not smile back in response. “Can’t you come back another day?” he asked, already seeming exasperated just at Jaehyun’s presence. “I have a busy schedule. You should have phoned and warned ahead, that would have been far more professional of you.”

“I don’t need to really talk to you,” shrugged Jaehyun. “Just, I need to look around the house and talk to your hybrids to make sure they’re happy. You can go and do whatever you need to and I’ll just do what I need to, if that’s more convenient.”

“You need to talk to them?”

Jaehyun could not identify the flash of emotion that streaked behind the man’s eyes, but there was something negative that appeared in his voice – either fear, anger or just annoyance. “Yes,” continued Jaehyun, trying to ignore the brief lapse in the man’s usual cold demeanour. “It shouldn’t take too long, I just need to make sure…”

“Come in,” interrupted the man. “Take as long as you need to do a thorough job. I’ll stay with you, if that’s okay. They’re pedigree hybrids, and they can be unpredictable. I don’t want another guest in my house being attacked. Take your shoes off on this mat, please. Leave them on the shelf to your left.”

The man watched Jaehyun closely as he was given no choice but to follow the instruction, kneeling down in the doorway to undo the laces of his trainers before leaving them in the exact place that the man had identified. “You know,” commented Jaehyun, once he could feel the cold sensation of bare floorboards chilling his feet through his thin socks. “I don’t tend to find hybrids as bad as anyone tends to say they are. It might be a sign of stress, or something else like that. Are you sure the six of them are comfortable together?”

“They’re a family,” stated the man, firmly. “Jungwoo is new, yes, but he is settling in after just a couple of days. The others are all used to each other. They were practically raised together, so I don’t understand where you are coming from, suggesting they might be stressed. I can assure you that they’re perfectly happy.”

“Can I see them?”

Jaehyun’s question was met with a scowl, but the man took two fingers to his mouth and reluctantly whistled with a high pitched, piercing sound that made Jaehyun want to cover his ears like a child who was met with a noise that was too loud. “Someone is here to see you,” called the man, once the whistle faded away. “All of you. Can you get here quickly, please?”

Kun appeared first, a nervous face peering down from the grand staircase as he watched their guest curiously before recognising the shelter owner from their previous encounter. Instantly, there was suspicion in his movements. “Do you know where the others are?” asked the man, when he saw his oldest hybrid appear alone.

“Chenle and Renjun are sleeping,” answered Kun, keeping his head bowed as he made his way down the stairs to stand directly in front of his owner. “I don’t know where the others are.”

“Why are they sleeping this early in the day?”

“They haven’t been sleeping well. They’re only little.”

The man sighed before asking “can you talk to them without the two youngest?”

“I need to speak to them all, ideally.”

“Chenle and Renjun are really no more than children. If they’re tired, they need to sleep. I really don’t know what they would be able to tell you that you can’t find out from the others. Jungwoo, it’s nice of you to finally show up.”

Jungwoo emerged into the hallway through a side door, cautious and hesitant as he moved to stand beside Kun. The two shared a smile behind bowed heads and cautious glances. “I can leave the youger ones to sleep if it’s easier,” answered Jaehyun, changing his mind on how he was going to do this observation after seeing the unsettling behaviour of the hybrids that had appeared. “As long as I can get an idea from these two, I’m sure it will be fine. Jungwoo is the one you adopted the other day, right?”

The man nodded, but he was distracted by turning his head to look at every doorway into the hall. An uneasy feeling overtook Jaehyun when WinWin finally appeared, moving hurriedly and apologetically to take his place in the forming line without ever raising his head from the floor. The hybrid that had felt more at home with Taeyong than he had ever done before was now dishevelled, his hair untamed and exhaustion clearly visible in his sunken face.

“You didn’t do your hair this morning,” commented the man, WinWin’s face flushing rose with a blush as he murmured apology and lifted his hand to try and change it. His owner grabbed hold of his wrist, forced his arm back down to his side and holding it there. “Do you know where Lucas is?”

This time, WinWin shook his head and sighed with relief when the tight grip around his wrist was released. “Excuse me,” commented the man, turning back to Jaehyun for a second. “I’m going to go and find our fourth hybrid, he’s…shy, around new people like you.”

There was silence as the man turned on his heels and took the stairs to the second floor, leaving Jaehyun standing in the hall with three hybrids who finally dared to raise their heads when their owner was gone. WinWin’s face was tainted with the slightest hint of tears; Kun ignored his whimpering, focusing directly on Jaehyun,

“What evidence do you need?”

Chapter Text

Jaeyhyun watched Kun for just a moment, staring at the desperation burnt into the hybrids face as Kun stepped out of line and grabbed hold of his arm to stop him from moving away. “Seriously,” he continued. “Whatever you need, we’ll get it. You can get us out of here, can’t you?”

“I don’t know,” admitted Jaehyun, finally pulling his arm away from Kun’s grip. “It’s like fighting a battle against someone who’s much stronger than you. I need evidence that can’t be disproven or talked out of.”

“What if he hit us? Would that work? We could get him to do it, it’s not hard to annoy him like that and…”

Jaehyun shook his head, turning away to avoid the crestfallen look on the faces of the three hybrids who stood beside him. “I don’t want you to get hurt any more than you apparently already have,” tried Jaehyun, but it was not reassuring. “Anyway, there’s no – there’s no law against hitting a hybrid, I’m sorry. I know it’s wrong. The law is specifically ‘endangering’, okay? Your life has to be in danger before we can even begin to think of taking you out of the home. That’s why I said this was going to be difficult.”

Kun was not upset; he was angry, a scowl spreading across his face as he dug his fingernails into his palms deep enough to cause both marks and pain, although he did not stop. When WinWin went to put an arm around him, he shrugged it off and glared at the younger boy in a way that would original have told WinWin that he needed to get away, to stop interrupted. WinWin, however, did not shy away. “Hyung,” he commanded, his voice louder than Jaehyun had heard him speak before. “Listen – show Chenle.”

For a moment, Kun opened his mouth to argue but he stayed in silence before closing it again, his head turning to glance up the stairs. “Do you think we have time?” he asked, trying to listen out for the tell-tale sound of footsteps. “He’ll be back here as soon as he finds Yukehei, won’t he? We’d have to get up there and explain and…”

“Yukhei is hiding under his bed,” interrupted Jungwoo; Jaehyun noted the clearness with which he spoke, the meaning of his words not hidden under a thick accent like the other hybrids. He had never seen a Korean pedigree breed in real life before. “He broke something this morning, a picture frame, and he’s been hiding ever since. I think it will take a while to find him. We might have time.”

“I don’t know what you’re planning, but I can help too,” added Jaehyun. “What are you doing, taking me somewhere? I’ll just tell him you asked me to. I need to look around the house anyway, he knows that.”

Kun hesitated, taking another nervous glance up the grand staircase before finally grabbing hold of Jaehyun’s and leading him with nervous energy. “We need to be quick,” he explained, bounding up the stairs after years of practice whilst Jaehyun stumbled and tried to keep up, his stamina beginning to fail him after four flights at the fact pace. WinWin and Jungwoo followed closely behind, pausing only briefly when they heard the voice of their master calling out for the hybrid he was still looking for.

“What are you trying to show me?” panted Jaehyun when they finally reached the end of the stairs; on each floor, the décor had grown less lavish until they had come to a hallway with no furniture, no artwork and even dust beginning to settle on the very edges of the mahogany bannister. There was a single door with a broken lock, barely even falling closed in its warped shape. Kun only had to nudge it with his shoulder for it to open, the hinges creaking as if they had never seen oil, and a draft soon took Jaehyun into its grasp as a chill ran through him.

“We sleep here,” murmured WinWin, realising that Kun was too preoccupied with moving into the room to even here Jaehyun’s breathless question.

“All of you? Together?”

“Yes. Why?”

“He has so many rooms and he makes you sleep in here?”

“The heating cut out a few days ago. There are holes in the ceiling somewhere so the rain leaks in, and the windows aren’t very good either, but we have blankets!”

WinWin’s optimism at being given blankets was enough to make Jaehyun’s heart break, and to make him consider whether the living arrangements of the six hybrids were dangerous enough to be considered an issue. When he moved into the room, the floorboards creaked dangerous under his weight and it was clear that it was nothing more than an attic. It had never even been converted into a room; it was just a spare space beneath the roof that housed dust, spiders, some cardboard boxes and now six expensive, precious pets.

“Ever since it got cold in here, Chenle’s been getting worse,” commented Kun, once he noticed Jaehyun staring around the room with a growing expression of horror. “He slept in here with his hair wet and it made his clothes damp and he got a chill, but it’s not getting better.”

When Jaehyun finally glanced down at the pile of blankets WinWin had been so proud of, he could make out a trembling boy hidden beneath a bundle of stained cloth. They were barely blankets, sheets that had become torn or forgotten and had been thrown up in the attic when they were replaced, but Chenle had turned his knuckles white by clinging onto them and wrapping them around his frail body to try and trap what little warmth he could find. Another hybrid knelt beside him, brushing a lock of hair from the shivering boy’s face. “We don’t want to tell our master because he’ll just say that Chenle isn’t useful to him like this,” continued Kun, edging aside when Jaehyun moved slowly forward to come and kneel beside the kitten. “He’s too pale and he can’t stand still, if he can even stand at all. We just tell him that they’re sleeping, and Renjun stays here too to look after him.”

“What did you mean when you said his hair was wet?” asked Jaehyun, quietly. He placed his palm across Chenle’s head, the hybrid too weak to protest, and instantly felt the burn of the contact with Chenle’s skin. Although he was shivering, his head was burning up with a temperature.

“He forgot to call him ‘master’ again,” explained Renjun. “Chenle isn’t used to it yet and he keeps getting into trouble for it.”

“Why would that make his hair wet?”

The silence was interrupted only by the sound of distant footsteps beneath them and the howling of the wind through the cracks of the old house. “It’s a punishment,” explained WinWin, hiding his hands inside of his long sleeves when he realised no one else was going to fix the confused look on Jaehyun’s face. “When we do something wrong, he uses…he uses water.”

“He sprays it at you?”

“Don’t know how to explain it,” shrugged WinWin.

“I’ve seen him do it,” added Jungwoo, offering the translation that WinWin lacked. “He holds their heads under the water until they can’t breathe.”

Jaehyun hesitated, pulling his hand away from Chenle’s forehead reluctantly. The hybrid did not even notice the sudden lack of contact.

“We need to get you out of here.”

Chapter Text

Taeyong had not left his house in three days; he had managed to convince Doyoung that he was ill and after several promises that he would go to the hospital and that he had found someone to look after Sicheng whilst he was resting, Doyoung had given him all the time he needed to recover. Taeyong did not know how long that would take him, but he had promised he would be back after the weekend.

In truth, Taeyong had begun to wonder if he was actually falling ill. His head had begun to pound with every beat of his heart when he found the motivation to leave the comfort of his bed, and the slightest meal would send him spiralling into an evening of nausea that he would rather avoid. He phone Johnny whenever he could, leaving the phone on loudspeaker so that the noise of someone else would make the apartment seem less empty, but the effort of leaving his small home already seemed overwhelming to Taeyong.

The phonecall from Jaehyun made him feel worse.

He did not want to answer at first, his new cherry blossom hair splayed out on his pillow as he watched his phone ring with Jaehyun’s smiling picture. The last time he had spoken to his friend, the idea of adopting a new hybrid had crossed his mind. He had been thinking about that a lot recently; his stance on hybrids had changed since he met Sicheng, and now he understood why some people would say that their house felt empty without one. Another hybrid to look after would have given Taeyong a purpose that he was currently lacking, a distraction from the pain that numbed him through endless days of not even wanting to leave his bed.

However, another hybrid would simply be a replacement for Sicheng. It would be one final knock of betrayal that would add to the guilt which already ate at him during his every waking moment.

He could not keep ignoring Jaehyun; Taeyong knew that his friend was stubborn, and that one missed call would lead to endless messages even if they were just to check that he was okay. When his ringtone had almost played completely all the way through, he finally placed the phone against his ear and mumbled a greeting in his hoarse, unused voice.

“We might be able to get them out of there,” announced Jaehyun, foregoing the usual greeting and instead making a statement that caused Taeyong to sit up in his bed with wide eyes. “If we work for it, I mean. There’s a definite case.”

“You mean…” tried Taeyong, but his voice trailed off. It was news that he had been waiting to hear, but the thought of it did come with a downside.

“Yes,” answered Jaehyun. “If you’re okay to think about it that way, the home is dangerous enough that they are actually in trouble if they keep living there. Their owner isn’t really suited to looking after one hybrid, let alone the six he’s currently got.”

“Did you see them?” asked Taeyong, eager like a child to find out the information he had craved. “Did you see Sicheng? Is he okay?”

Jaehyun’s reply was bitter.

“Their owner is a sadist, some sort of control freak, I don’t know. He shouldn’t be in charge of hybrids. Sicheng is okay. He seems a little shaken but I’m not surprised if what they said was actually true.”

“What did they say?”

“I don’t think you need to know.”

Taeyong bit his lip, hard enough for the metallic tinge of blood to fill his mouth when he swiped his tongue over the new wound. “I know it’s not good,” he muttered, quietly. “You’ve already said that. I need to know if Sicheng is really okay. You can just tell me what is happening, I can take it.”

“The house is nice enough,” explained Jaehyun, with a sigh. “It’s definitely big enough for six hybrids, but he makes them all sleep in the attic. The roof is leaking and the windows are broken, it’s worse than the shelter. It’s so cold in there. One of the younger ones as well, one of the kittens – he’s really ill, hyung. I don’t know how long he’s been like that. I told their owner that he needed to see a doctor and I hope he listens to me.”

“Does he hurt them, though? Do they actually have to call him ‘master’?”

“They’re all terrified of him, hyung. He hits them, which actually wouldn’t be an issue because owners are allowed to do that. I never even got to meet one of his pedigrees. Sicheng told me that Yukhei would get into trouble for hiding, and that he’d be locked in the basement until he’d learnt his lesson. There was also water…”

“Sicheng was scared of water. Kun too, I think. He was scared of the fountain.”

“Their owner holds them under the water if they do something he doesn’t like, until they can’t breathe. Kun also told me something else, whilst the others were looking after the kitten. It’s sick, honestly. I wanted to punch the guy myself. If they’re lucky, they get to sleep in an actual bed in an actual room, but Kun said they have to be good and it’s usually sleeping beside their owner as payment for…other things, you know? I knew there were rumours of people buying pedigrees just for that but I didn’t think it was true. He said that’s what happens if they’re “lucky”, hyung. It’s awful.”

Taeyong was silent.

“I checked with Kun, it’s just the older hybrids I think so the kittens are safe at least but still…”

“Can we get them out of there?” interrupted Taeyong. “How long will it take?”

“I have to report it properly, and then there’ll be more inspections and it will take a while.”

“Report it now.”

Taeyong ended the phone call without saying goodbye, the information that Jaehyun had told him slowly making more and more sense as it settled down in his mind. He placed his head back on the pillow, the growing feeling of nausea that he had felt ever since giving Sicheng away suddenly growing into an unbearable pain.

Chapter Text

WinWin stood as still as his body would let him, hands pinned behind his back with his eyes fixed directly at the feet of his master after several warnings that his head needed to be bowed. The only hybrid who had disobeyed this – Yukhei – had been warned with a sharp slap to the cheek until he reluctantly followed the strict instruction.

The youngest kitten could barely stand without falling back, the colour drained from his face as he whined under his breath with a low, heartbreaking moan of pain whilst his own legs threatened to give up under his weight. Renjun had offered a hand to Chenle to steady him, expecting backlash from their owner who paced back and forth in front of the line of his pets, but instead Renjun was met with permission in the form of a curt nod and Chenle grabbed desperately for the support.

“I’m disappointed,” crooned their owner, when Chenle’s complaints were reduced only to pained breathing and his eyes fluttering shut even as he stood. “Whichever one of you told our special visitor that Chenle was ill before you told me, I want you to confess now and we can deal with this nicely.”

WinWin held his breath, risking a look to his left when he expected Kun to shoot his hand in the air with a flurry of comments following the sentiment of “it was WinWin’s idea” and “WinWin explained it to him”, but Kun still had too much pride to reach that level of petty immaturity. WinWin was left relieved as Kun remained silent, keeping his hands behind his back and his head bowed as if no one had ever spoken of Chenle to their guest at all.

“One of you had to take him all the way up to your room and explain the situation,” continued their owner. “I know it wasn’t Lucas, because he was too busy being a coward and hiding under my bed. But the rest of you, you lied to me. You kept this from me. I’ve told you before that hybrids aren’t allowed secrets.”

He stopped pacing in front of WinWin, the hybrid bowing his head as far as his neck would let him and straightening his back so that a complaint could not even be made about his posture. When the owner was left satisfied that there was nothing he could complain about, he moved on to inspect the rest of the line. “I won’t find any medical treatment for Chenle until you confess,” he added, and that spurred a silent agreement within the hybrids that did not even need to be decided between them.

Chenle’s needs came first.

Kun raised his hand, pointing it straight to the ceiling with no sign of regret or hesitation as their owner instantly focused on him and approaching with a questioning look in his eye. When Kun deemed it safe, he lifted his head and glared directly at the older man as he spoke. “We all agreed it,” he confessed, and the remained hybrids nodded alongside him, including Yukhei. “We didn’t want to tell you because we thought he would get better, and we didn’t know what you’d to do him. We thought that man could help him. He said he worked with sick hybrids a lot.”

“He…helped me,” added WinWin, stuttering through the Korean phrase he had learnt at his brief time in Jaehyun’s shelter. He knew that referring to his time outside of the home was forbidden, but he needed to help the others explain. “When – when outside, he…made me better.”

“We just thought he could do the same to Chenle,” finalised Jungwoo, his movements more cautious but his speech confident. “We just wanted him to get better.”

“I don’t care what your intentions were,” argued their owner, a familiar fire burning in his eyes that prompted all hybrids to snap their heads back to the assigned position. Renjun risked a punishment to move even closer to Chenle, helping him sit down on the staircase behind him as tears began to roll down his cheeks from the effort of standing. The youngest’s head rolled back onto his friend’s shoulder, but his master did not show any sign of concern. “Chenle’s condition is nothing that cannot be fixed with medication. You exaggerated it, just like you always do. If you had told me straight away, we could have fixed this. It is entirely your fault that he is this bad. He is suffering because of you.”

There was a pang of guilt in WinWin’s chest as his owner spoke, and he judged by the shuffling of Kun’s feet on the polished floor that the same feeling was pulsing through him. “Because of Chenle, that man is threatening to take you off me,” continued their owner. “I’ve told you about this before, yes? Kun, what have I told you?”

Kun did not speak, staying silent until his master stood so close in front of him that he could feel his rage radiating in the form of body heat through his clothing. “No one else will look after us,” murmured Kun, when the threat of punishment became too much for him. “That we’re useless.”

“No one appreciates you like I do,” added their owner, cupping Kun’s chin in his hand until the hybrid was forced to look up and the late evening sunset glinted on the shine of his whiskers, and in the deep colours of his eyes. “You are all pointless, each of you. No one else will find you worth looking after. They want companions, servants, friends for their children. They are not looking for unpredictable animals like you were before I trained you. They don’t want pets who can’t be bothered to learn the language of the country they are living in, or ones with such tempers and a dishonest nature that their children are in danger just being close to him. I don’t want those kind of pets either, but I’ll put up with you because I can see that beyond that, you are beautiful.”

When he dropped Kun’s head, Kun tried not to step back even further to escape the gaze of his owner. He failed, edging backwards until his arm was grabbed and he was pulled back into line with a force that left his shoulder burning from the pain. “WinWin,” commanded their owner, still focusing on Kun until the hybrid stood exactly where he needed it. “Chenle has an appointment. You’re coming with us to carry him if he needs it. You stay here.”

He fetched a lead from the wall, waiting for WinWin to hold out his wrist. “The rest of you,” he continued, voice turning cold. “I’ll deal with you later.”

Chapter Text

The office where WinWin sat felt like Jaehyun’s shelter, full of the scents of foreign hybrids that unnerved him when he was unable to see them and gauge their response to his existence. The bright white of the walls was painful to his eyes, the incessant ringing of the phone at a painfully high tone, but somehow he felt safe there. Chenle lay across his lap, breathing shallow, as WinWin absent-mindedly stroked his soft hair in the calming way he had learnt from the brief time he had spent with Taeyong.

The floor was cold, but WinWin preferred sitting there like he had been ordered rather than spending time perched on the edge of a cracked leather seat beside his owner. Any time spent beside him was time that WinWin hated, whether having to ride beside him in the car or sleep beside him in his bed at his request. There were other hybrids sat there too – pedigrees specifically, WinWin could tell by both their appearance and scent. It was as if anyone below a certain standard would be turned away at the door, being refused treatment.

When he had been in Jaehyun’s shelter, WinWin had seen the inside of a hospital room on multiple occasions – to fix his arm, to check his temperature, to monitor his breathing – but he had always felt accepted when he was there. The difference between his time there and this new building where their owner had promised Chenle would be taken care of was the exact difference between a doctor’s surgery and a vet.

WinWin barely even noticed when the name of his owner was called, only moving when he felt the painful tug on the lead that cut deep into the flesh on his wrist, picking Chenle up when he saw that the young kitten was in no position to move under his own strength. It was barely any effort to lift and cradle him, even in WinWin’s own small frame. When he placed the kitten down on the table in the separate room like the doctor ordered him to, Chenle gasped as the cold metal burnt against his bare skin.

“Stand in the corner,” ordered his owner, and WinWin was left with no choice but to obey. He was grateful for the grip on his lead to be dropped in a way that offered some relief, but he was not allowed to intervene as the younger hybrid was forced to sit up, to talk, to do everything he was too weak to do in the hope of a diagnosis.

 

“What was the kitten’s name?” asked Taeyong as Jaehyun tapped his pen against the edge of his desk as he glanced up at the older. The paper in front of him was filled with a mess of handwriting as he had tried to recount everything he had seen in his short visit to the house, Taeyong having come to the shelter specifically to listen to what he had seen and to help him organise everything into a form suitable to file a report.

“Chenle,” answered Jaehyun, adding that name to the list of the others he had been able to remember. “Another Chinese pedigree, of course, but much younger. He was an even worse state than Sicheng was when we first found him. I’m keeping an eye on every place you might take a sick hybrid to see if I can find out what is going on and whether their owner is trying to help him, but I don’t have access to everywhere. I know hybrids are sometimes taken to – well, places where they ask less questions, I guess.”

Taeyong nodded in acknowledgement, understanding the kind of place that Jaehyun was trying to describe. “And you think you have enough to get them taken from him?”

“It’s a complicated process,” explained Jaehyun. “I’ve never done it before. It’s usually bigger shelters, where they have places to house them after they’ve been taken away. I don’t have that kind of room and we’re dealing with so many hybrids. I could house one or two here, yes, but I’d have to put out a special appeal for foster homes or even permanent adoption. The kittens might be easier to place but the older ones…”

“I’ll foster them.”

Jaehyun stopped writing to look up at the older boy, surprised to find that there was complete sincerity in his face. “I’m serious,” continued Taeyong, his knuckles turning white as he gripped the side of the desk, almost as if he regretted his words. “I’ll take all of them if I have to, you know I will. I take back what I said before about not fostering or adopting or anything. I’ll take all of them.”

“You can’t,” sighed Jaehyun, shaking his head. “Your apartment isn’t big enough. There’s regulations for the fostering process too, and each room can only house two hybrids. I know your apartment, hyung. You’ve only got one spare room, so you can only take two.”

Jaehyun pulled another sheet of paper from his notepad, the sound of it being torn from cardboard becoming the only sound in the office before it was replaced by the hasty scribble of a pen. “There’s Sicheng and Kun,” murmured Jaehyun under his breath, writing furiously to try and make sense of his thoughts. “They seemed the closest. You could take them, if you’re genuine in your offer. I know you’d want Sicheng anyway. Then, there’s Jungwoo and Lucas – no, Yukhei. I don’t want to really place them, I don’t think they’re ready. I could keep them in the shelter if they’re okay in captivity until I find a suitable home. Then, it’s just the two kittens. It’s easy to place kittens, people adopt them so fast,  but I don’t know if they’d be ready for adoption. If he’s okay with dog hybrids, I’d take Chenle while he’s still ill, but Renjun…”

“Johnny?” suggested Taeyong with a shrug.

“Maybe, if Renjun is okay being with Ten. It’s just an emergency, we could sort them out afterwards. We just need to prove we have placements for them before we can start taken them from their old owner, and we want to do that at soon as possible.”

Taeyong stayed quiet for a moment, allowing Jaehyun to have a moment with his thoughts as he listed the possible homes for the hybrids. Then, he added “do we have to split them up?” as Jaehyun put down his pen.

“Hyung, you know we need to get them out of there as soon as possible.”

“I know but…”

“We need to split them up.”

Chapter Text

Sicheng came home alone, his master keeping a tight hold on his lead as he dragged him through the rain from the car to the front door and observed the essential ritual before Sicheng was allowed to step away from the entrance. “You know,” he taunted, being rougher than usual in how he removed the lead from his wrist. “If you told me about Chenle as soon as you’d known rather than waiting, he wouldn’t be in this mess. What do you have to say about this?”

Even though he wanted to stay silent, Sicheng could only hang his head and mutter an apology.

“You deserve time in the basement for what you’ve done,” hissed his owner. “But seeing as Chenle is in danger of dying, I think you’ve suffered enough. If we lose him, if I lose my money on having to get a new hybrid to replace him, you’re going to be entirely responsible and I’m not going to forgive you. Get out of my sight, WinWin.”

Sicheng ran without a second thought, clambering up the flights of stairs before his owner could change his mind and confine him to another night locked in the dark room beneath the manor. Kun was waiting for him, closing the bedroom door as soon as the younger hybrid had stumbled onto their bare floorboards and collapsed into the pile of blankets that had originally held Chenle. “I don’t know when he’ll be back,” he announced, Mandarin becoming hidden behind heavy panting. “He’s too ill. They didn’t want him to come back.”

“He’s actually ill?” repeated Kun. “Shit, could he…will he die?”

Sicheng shrugged, unable to answer. “They said it was something to do with the conditions he was in,” he added, after a moment of silence. “But…but master wouldn’t believe that, of course he wouldn’t. He says it was our fault.”

“It’s not our fault,” argued Yukhei, knees curled up to his chest with his arm around a shaking Renjun. Jungwoo observed the action from an opposite corner. “We kept him warm and dry and did as much as we could. He can’t blame us.”

“He will,” spat Kun. “You know he will. Chenle will probably survive if he actually pays for medical care…”

“He will,” interrupted Sicheng. “He doesn’t want him to die. Waste of money. He’s paying for anything he needs.”

This reassured Kun enough to calm him down, taking the time to kneel beside the younger boy and brush a lock of overgrown hair from his face. “He didn’t punish you, did he?” he asked, softly, watching as Sicheng’s shoulders moved up and down in time with his deep breaths. “You’re nervous again.”

Sicheng shook his head, adding a small “I’m fine” which he punctuated with a smile when Kun did not seemed convinced. “Honestly, he didn’t hurt me.”

“Your wrist is bleeding.”

Kun reached down, taking Sicheng’s frail wrist in his own hand and running his thumb along the raised wounds. The blood smeared, tainting Sicheng’s pale skin. “I’m fine,” he repeated, pulling his wrist away. “It’s just the lead.”

“I know but it doesn’t mean it isn’t hurting.”

Sicheng forced his smile to be brighter, putting his bleeding hand on Kun’s shoulder as if trying to comfort him back. “It doesn’t hurt,” he reassured, almost laughing when Kun cocked his head in suspicion. “Okay, it hurts a little but I’ve had worse. We all have.”

“I’m sorry for being mad at your for running away.”

Kun’s apology was fast, barely missing a beat after Sicheng had stopped speaking. “I was just jealous,” he continued, focusing on the blankets beneath them rather than looking in the younger hybrid’s eyes. “Jealous that is wasn’t me, and annoyed you got caught and brought back rather than getting away. I thought you might have told someone and gotten us out of here and you didn’t so I was upset but, I guess I probably wouldn’t have mentioned it either if it had been me.”

“Kun,” tried Sicheng, but Kun shook his head.

“No,” he argued. “Don’t say that I don’t have to be sorry, because I feel bad about it and I wouldn’t be telling you this otherwise. I was being stupid, you wouldn’t have come back here if you had the chance so something bad must have happened and I don’t want something like that to ever happen again.”

Sicheng looked down too, finding his fingers becoming entwined with Kun’s again when he left them to wander on their own accord. “The man who came the other day,” he murmured, almost a whisper like the wind outside their broken window. “Do you think he’ll actually manage to get us out of here?”

“Maybe,” shrugged Kun. “I don’t know. We can give him a chance and then, if he doesn’t, we can do it ourselves. He can’t fight us all off if we fight back.”

“You used to say that when it was just the two of us.”

Sicheng finally looked up, taking Kun’s hand even tighter and trying to resist the urge to pull him closer. “Do you think we’ll be able to get back to China?” he asked, after only a heartbeat of silence. “All of us? Do you think we could do it?”

“There’s nothing left for us back there,” muttered Kun, trying not to see Sicheng’s hopeful face fall. “We have to stay here now. I don’t think anyone else will take us all together, but I won’t let them take you to somewhere bad. We have to go together. That’s what we always promised, isn’t it?”

“I don’t want to be adopted again, Kun,” pouted Sicheng, leaning into Kun when the older boy pulled him into a hug and stroked the back of his hair with a comforting rhythm.

“We’re not used for anything else,” murmured Kun, pulling the younger boy even closer when he felt the shallow breaths rising into panic again. “I’ll get out of here someday and then I’ll bring someone to come get us and it’ll be all okay. We’ll find a nice home. Good owner, less rules. Something better than here.”

Sicheng tried not to show that there were tears growing in his eyes, but Kun could see them as he pulled away from the hug. “Hey,” he smiled, reassuringly taking hold of Sicheng’s shoulder. “Remember what I used to say when it was just the two of us here?”

The younger boy nodded, smiling despite the tear trails on his cheeks. “It’s still true,” continued Kun. “It could still be worse.”

Chapter Text

"Move."

The order with spoken with a conviction that could not be disobeyed, Kun taking the step closer to his master and holding out his wrist for the familiar band to be fixed across the scar that had already formed on his soft flesh. The pain caused him to wince, but the slight movement was met with a sharp tug on his now tied arm from his impatient owner.

"Come on," repeated the older man, pulling the pedigree hybrid closer to him with force that wrenched at Kun's shoulder. Sicheng watched the scene from above, knuckles white from clinging against the wooden railing of the stairs. It should have been him; his mastered had summoned him for the journey out into the world beyond their house, but instead Sicheng had only been scolded for not looking 'right', for having his hair be a mess and dark shadows beneath his eyes and for swollen, worry-bitten lips. The fresh bruise was beginning to bloom across his cheek, the outcome of an inspection that he had failed.

"What is wrong with you?" hissed their owner when Kun refused to move without force, pulling the hybrid closer to him by the scruff of his shirt until he could smell the floral scent of Kun's shampoo. "Why aren't you listening?"

Kun scowled, meeting his master's eye when he should have been looking down in submission. "I don't want to go with you," he answered plainly, a streak of rebellion showing. It was unlike Kun, but it was something they had all agreed on: after seeing how their master had treated Chenle, their most vulnerable, the four remaining hybrids and made a silent agreement that they would refuse to take it any longer. It could result in punishments, but it would never be able to result in a situation worse than the one they already faced. 

It could still be worse, Kun's beloved motto that he had always loved to repeat in order to calm the others, no longer stood. It could not be worse. If no one else came to fight for them, they had to do it themselves.

"You don't have a choice," replied their master, grabbing hold of Kun's wrist and pulling the chain even tighter until a thin stream of blood began to drip down Kun's pale wrist as the metal bit into his skin. "Move. Now, Kun."

The pain in his wrist was too much to resist as his owner pulled him forward, leading to him stumbling forward as he was dragged into the world and forced into the back of a car for a journey he did not want to make.

 

Taeyong had almost forgotten how it felt to have wind blow through his hair, messing with his attempt at styling and ruffling through it's new cherry blossom colour. The sound of engines were no longer muffled through glass but instead roared next to him on his walk home, the first time he had left his house since abandoning Sicheng and beginning his challenge to rescue the five hybrids trapped under one roof.

He had forced himself to go to work - walking, not driving, to make up from the time spent locked away in his room - in an attempt to force some normality. If he was pessimistic, if he looked at the future and believed that everything would only go wrong for him, then he did not know if he would ever see Sicheng again, or if the hybrid would even survive treatment under his harsh master, but he could not let it rule him.

Taeyong had to live. He could not avoid work or the outside world forever, and therefore he had dragged himself from the warmth of the duvet and into the photography studio, trying to distract himself by taking endless family portraits of smiling faces he would never see again. It had worked briefly, until Doyoung had passed spare time by asking him questions about his hybrid and how he had been looking after him.

Although he did not want to talk about it, Taeyong found himself lying. He found himself telling Doyoung that Sicheng had not been the right hybrid for him, that he could not handle a pedigree, that he had voluntarily returned the younger kitten to the shelter to find a better home because Taeyong had rushed into the commitment without truly considering the implications.

It was wrong, every single word, and it made the guilt that was slowly eating at Taeyong grow even stronger, but Doyoung believed it and even sympathised. "A lot of people decided that when they actually get a hybrid," he had commented, making Taeyong feel worse. "They look cute, but you never know what they like. Most of them are nightmares apparently, and they all get returned. I'm sure Sicheng will find someone who can cope with him."

Taeyong had heard the words repeated over and over again in his head on his long walk home, trying to hide it by blasting music through his earphones. "Cope" was the choice that spoke most to him, as if Sicheng was a problem that needed to be accepted if you wanted the other benefits of a hybrid. Sicheng had not been a problem; he had been a blessing.

The only thing that brought Taeyong away from the endless repetition of painful words was commotion a few metres in front of him, a gasping crowd of early-evening shoppers all glancing away from store windows to let their eyes follow a sprinting figure, a hunched posture pursued by a screaming man.

The noise made Taeyong absent-mindedly pull a headphone from his ear, the music replaced by a harsh voice shouting insults and terrible names towards a fleeing hybrid who ran as fast as his trembling legs would carry him through the thick crowds. When the hybrid finally stopped running, he stopped directly in front of Taeyong and looked up at him through an overgrown fringe with eyes wide with fear.

Kun.

Kun grabbed Taeyong's wrist, and Taeyong did not resist as the hybrid pulled him with him, ducking into an alleyway beside the side of the road and crouching behind a series of dustbins that hid him from sight. He pushed his free hand, the one not bleeding or held tightly by the sharp metal, against Taeyong's mouth as he the older crouched beside him in a warning not to speak.

The master ran by the alleyway without even giving the shadows a second glance, Kun's panicked breath slowing as he began to let himself believe that he may have been able to escape. As he gently took his hand away from Taeyong's mouth, he lent down exhausted onto his shoulder and murmured a single word.

"Help."