In an alternate universe where Irene isn't entirely afraid of animals….
Tap, tap, tap.
Seulgi drummed her antsy fingers on the steering wheel. It didn't offer the same relief as the crack of her knuckles, but it was the more apt option with her girlfriend in the passenger seat beside her. Joohyun's scolding glare was the last thing she needed to ease her worries.
"Are you sure about this?" Seulgi asked, uncertainty in her voice despite having had this same discussion with her girlfriend for a number of times already, as she'd shifted the car into park in front of her parents' home. Nevermind the early traffic from Seoul to Ansan, if her girlfriend changed her mind, Seulgi would gladly take them back to their apartment, no questions asked.
"Yes, dear," Joohyun replied calmly. She unfastened her seatbelt, letting the strap hiss back into place, when Seulgi caught her wrist halfway. Joohyun looked up and turned to the woman with a raised eyebrow.
"One-hundred percent," Joohyun affirmed, gently shaking off Seulgi's hold and letting her seatbelt snap back all the way.
"I know I'm asking a lot from you, Joohyun. We really don't have to do this if you don't want to," Seulgi said to her as she fondly smoothed her hand over Joohyun's car seat-tousled hair. When she finished, Seulgi tucked Joohyun's hair behind one ear, smiling, satisfied.
Joohyun responsively took Seulgi’s hand into hers and shook her head, chuckling. "Stop being so dramatic. You're making it sound like you're asking me to jump off a cliff with you. It's just two cats, dear.”
Though they'd been dating for a good five years, it wasn’t until recently that the two had decided that living separately was pointless and unnecessarily wearing when they slept over at each other's places more often than not. At Joohyun's, mostly, as it was the larger, more practical choice, compared to the same old unit Seulgi had been staying at since her junior year at college. The reason why she’d never thought of relocating anytime sooner was beyond Joohyun. Needless to say, Seulgi was overzealous to finally move out, and in with her longtime partner.
Always one for celebratory festivities, Joohyun had been able to convince Seulgi into agreeing to throw a housewarming party - though Seulgi never really stood a chance against Joohyun’s unorthodox ways of persuasion - and had gathered each of their parents and closest friends inside their new home. It'd been a simple celebration, with homemade dishes prepared by two women, fun games (apparently, Joohyun had gotten her competitive spirit from her mother), and commonplace talks about the life ahead of them as a couple.
Joohyun and Seulgi been able to dodge questions touching the topic of starting a family of their own the first few instances since they'd been implicit enough to brush over, until Sooyoung had asked the burning question in the most straightforward way possible, "So when are we getting mini Joohyun's and Seulgi's?"
Everybody else had seemed to egg the couple on further after that, never really stopping even after Joohyun and Seulgi had insisted that it just wasn't the right time and were yet to talk about it. Somewhere along those conversations, Seulgi’s father had joked that taking care of their family cats, Lulu and Lala, together, would be wonderful preparation for parenthood. If anyone had noticed how the light bulb went off in Seulgi’s head from that moment forth, nobody had said anything. Joohyun could tell that she’d taken her father’s words into quiet consideration, and had waited later that night, when all of their guests had left, to get Seulgi into opening up about it.
Seulgi had managed to reason out to her that she’d entertained the idea in her mind simply because she’d missed her cats, but had doubts thinking that Joohyun was already satisfied with just the two of them. Joohyun had wished she could've coaxed Seulgi more than that, but eventually had chosen not to. She’d seen right through her and understood the words Seulgi couldn’t bring herself to say aloud anyways. Joohyun knew that despite the multiple grounds she’d said in front of their friends and family earlier that day, a large part of her wanted the same. The same future Seulgi envisioned for them.
The idea was batted around for some time, until one late night, after a hard day’s work, that Joohyun had chanced on Seulgi facetiming the two cats, watching her younger girlfriend talk animatedly on the phone with a soft gaze. Her heart had fluttered at the sight, images of coming home to Seulgi and their future--
“Seulgi,” Joohyun had said that night, standing at their doorway. Her girlfriend had immediately looked her way with wide eyes, glad to see her home. Joohyun had smiled, waiting for the door to click close before she'd spoken again, "Let's bring Lulu and Lala home with us."
Seulgi nodded, "Yes, but we've just moved in together in the apartment a few months ago and just settled in, and I know you've never had pets before so all of this is going to be new to you - not to mention how busy you've been with work as of late, so if mmh--"
Joohyun pinched Seulgi’s lips in-between her thumb and forefinger, shushing her. To be fair, her girlfriend did make some valid points, but were ones that she'd considered beforehand. Seulgi must've forgotten who her girlfriend was.
"Kang Seulgi, I'd already thought about all of that before I'd said yes to you, okay?" Joohyun said, releasing Seulgi's lips.
"Right...Of course you did."
"This'll be a good, new experience for the both of us. Now, let's get going. Eomma and Appa must be waiting inside." Joohyun turned to open her door, only to be stopped again by a hand on her wrist. She sighed and faced Seulgi with a frown. "What now, Seul? I told you, I'm fine--"
"No, it's nothing. I just wanted to kiss you," Seulgi said.
Joohyun stared at her mutely for a moment before breaking down into giggles. "Pfft!" she snorted, hitting her girlfriend lightly on the arm, then pulled her close. "C'mere, you."
Things quickly changed with the addition of Lulu and Lala inside their home. Becoming a cat mom of two after having grown up with zero pets at all was quite the adjustment Joohyun wished she could've better prepared for. She knew from the very beginning that caring for a pet wasn't easy work, and was more than the cute videos she saw all the time on social media, but she honestly didn't expect it to be this tasking.
"Seulgi, we're going to need some lint rollers."
"Okay, got it. I'll make sure to buy some at the mart."
"Lots of them, Seul."
"Joohyun, are you okay?! I heard you screaming all the way from the other room."
"Haah...Lulu and Lala are going to give me a heart attack one of these days...popping out of nowhere all the time…"
"Seul, could you help me mount this on the wall later? This is the fifth time today that they've knocked it down from the stand."
"Yeah, sure thing. Which one is it, anyway?"
"My portrait of you, from when we painted each other?"
"Well no wonder- Ow! I'm just kidding, c'mon! Hyun, come back!"
"Hey, where'd you get this new toy, Lala? Huh, I don't remember buying this, and Hyun would've told me if she did…"
"Yah, Kang Seulgi! Have you seen my yarn rolls?! I was going to do some crocheting, but I can't find them anywhere!"
"Seulgi, did you change the litter boxes like I told you?"
"Uhm. I err- sorry. I'll get to it right now."
"Ugh! Forget it, I'll do it!"
"Lulu? No, no, no, not my plants! Hey!"
In hindsight, Joohyun realized that maybe she should've listened to Seulgi. Or maybe she just wasn’t fit for this whole pet thing.
Things became more difficult when Seulgi had arrived home a sobbing mess one day. Joohyun rushed to gather Seulgi's slumped form into her arms and bring the woman to sit down on their couch, rubbing her back while she whispered sweet nothings into her ear. Seulgi wasn't able to speak right away, crying harder when Joohyun pulled her into a hug, clinging onto the elder's sweater in a tight grip.
She wasn't surprised when two cats joined in moments later to comfort the crying woman, Lala climbing up the furniture to lie across Seulgi's lap, and Lulu curling himself beside her feet. Seulgi seemed to appreciate the gesture a lot, bringing a hand down to run through Lala's white fur as her sobs slowly dissipated.
Joohyun wiped Seulgi's tears with her sleeves, then cupped her flushed face. For the longest time, Joohyun held Seulgi until her breaths evened, kissing the side of her head when Seulgi finally looked her in the eye, smiling weakly.
"Do you wanna talk about it?"
From those words alone, Seulgi felt tears well up once again, but still nodded her head. "The team manager called me to their office today, said they needed to tell me something important, and you know, for a second, I really thought that I was going to be promoted," Seulgi paused to catch her breath, blinking away the tears threatening to leave her eyes. Joohyun held her even closer.
"Turns out, the company is on the verge of being acquired by another company, and we'd be one floor too many in the marketing department if everybody stayed…and well, unfortunately for me, I-" Seulgi's voice cracked, sobs choking the rest of her sentence as she buried her face into Joohyun's chest.
"I'm so sorry, Seul. I can't imagine how hard this is for you, and so sudden too," Joohyun said softly. She Seulgi's hair in a soothing manner, keeping her other arm wrapped tightly around her shoulders.
Seulgi sniffed, and shifted against Joohyun's body, cringing at the damp spot she'd made on her girlfriend's sweater. "I should be the one apologizing, I hate to be a burden. I'm sorry…"
"Hey, none of that," Joohyun scolded her, then wiped Seulgi's face with the good side of her sleeve. Her heart ached to see Seulgi like this, so distraught, and not be able to do anything but hold her. "You're not a burden, okay? We're a team, Seul. We'll face everything together, good and bad."
All Seulgi could offer in return was a strangled sound from the throat, eyes distant and fingers fiddling mindlessly with Lala's fur.
Joohyun gave her shoulder a squeeze "Okay? Hm?"
"Yeah. Okay," Seulgi mumbled.
"Okay. I love you, Seul."
Joohyun decided that that was enough for now, that it was best if she didn't push Seulgi into talking to her. Seulgi told her about almost everything, anyway, and would do so, like she'd always done, whenever she was ready. And although Joohyun was unconcerned that Seulgi didn't say I love you back, deep worry filled her heart.
Joohyun began to see Seulgi at home less and less since that night, even less than when her girlfriend still had a job. Knowing Seulgi, the younger woman wouldn’t waste a single second to find a new job regardless of Joohyun’s countless reminders to take things easy, but Joohyun knew better - no job interview would finish so late in the night. Whether it was out of guilt or shame that kept Seulgi away from their home longer than Joohyun liked, the realization was one that made her heart sink beneath its own feeling of helplessness.
Still, Joohyun supported Seulgi tirelessly, hoping she would come home one day with good news and that giant, toothy grin of hers, instead of the same exhausted expression on her face that she’d been seeing for weeks. But Joohyun could only endure so much, too, putting up a strong front for two people when she had her own set of problems that she didn’t want Seulgi fretting over, either. Joohyun was only human, after all.
“Well, I can think of another reason for their behavior,” Seulgi said in defense of the cats huddled near her feet. She’d woken up in a good mood that morning, a grand feeling about the interview she’d have later, almost positive that this would finally be her break. Little did Seulgi know that today would also be the day her girlfriend’s composure cracked, rarely as it happened. Weeks worth of stress and anxiety all boiled down to one day, on an unsuspecting pair of felines.
“And what would that be, cat whisperer?” Joohyun scoffed with an annoyed roll of her eyes.
“Maybe...they just want some of your attention?” Seulgi replied, hating how unsure the words sounded.
At that, Joohyun took a step forward and jabbed a finger to herself to accentuate her next words. “Some of my attention? I feed and clean after them everyday. I’ve even bought them toys just so things specifically like this don’t happen,” she finished, pointing to her paperwork, now a fresh pile of shreds.
Seulgi answered back as calmly as she could, not wanting to match Joohyun’s fire with her own. “I know, and I appreciate that. I bet they do too,” she glanced down at Lulu and Lala, and catching Joohyun do the same, “But what I mean is...to actually spend some time with them.”
“Don’t you already do enough of that?” Joohyun chuckled mockingly for the briefest second before her face darkened. “Look, while you’re playing around with your cats or café-hopping or doing god knows what, I’m actually working, Seulgi.”
Not too long ago, Joohyun had discovered that cafés were one of the places Seulgi frequented, during the times she could've spent at home, during the times Joohyun was stuck at their apartment mulling over her.
“What, Seulgi? Have you or have you not been constantly going out with your little friends while I’ve been neck-deep into my work?”
Seulgi sighed, reaching for her girlfriend's hand. “Joohyun, I know you’re frustrated right now, but-”
Joohyun swatted the hand away. “Frustrated. Hm. Try furious. I’ve spent hours on that plan and now it’s all gone to dust thanks to those cats of yours!”
“These cats of ours have names, and you know that they wouldn’t do something like this on purpose,” Seulgi said through clenched teeth. By then, whatever excitement she had for the day disappeared into thin air.
“You just said that they wanted to get my attention.”
“Yeah- no, what I mean is that they wouldn’t ruin all of your effort on purpose. They just didn’t know any better.”
“Oh, save it, Seulgi." The younger knew her point had gotten to Joohyun when the woman's shoulders sagged ever so slightly, but wouldn't allow herself to admit it.
"Listen to yourself, Joohyun. Don't you think that you're overreacting over some papers?"
Joohyun's shoulders picked themselves back up and retracted, and Seulgi knew that this time, she'd said the wrong words. "Overreacting? I’m not the one avoiding coming home every night! I know that these past few weeks have been hard on you, Seul, and I really wish I could make things easier, I really do. But what about me, Seulgi? If you'd only stop to ask how I was doing, then you'd know just how tired I am too!"
"Hyun…" Seulgi's features softened, realizing her mistake, but wasn't given any time to dwell as Joohyun continued her barrage.
"If i can't expect you to help around here, then don't make things even harder for me!" Joohyun snapped, pointing a finger at her ruined papers. "And at least these dumb papers are paying the bills! You haven't done !"
Joohyun's eyes widened as the weight of her words dawned onto her, a deafening silence lapsing between them. She gasped, a hand closing over , and looked at Seulgi, who looked just as shocked.
"I...I'm sorry. That was totally out of line," she said, voice shaking. Tears welled in her eyes as she covered her face with her hands. "Oh my god…"
Seulgi quickly rushed to her side, but Joohyun held out an arm to prevent her from coming closer.
"I didn't mean- I'm sorry, Seul. I really didn't- I know you've been working so hard," Joohyun bawled, no longer putting up a fight when Seulgi pulled her into her arms.
"I know, I know. It's okay. Shh," Seulgi comforted, kneading her scalp with her fingers just the way Joohyun liked it.
After a few minutes, Joohyun sniffled and pulled away. "You have somewhere to be, don't you?" she rasped, and hoped the question hadn't come out as harsh as her voice.
"You are what matters most to me, Hyun. One interview is-"
"No, I'll be fine. Trust me, Seul. Go to that interview. You're not the only one who has high-hopes for this," Joohyun managed a weak smile.
Seulgi nodded, reluctantly letting go of her girlfriend. She'd do anything to ease her worries.
"Just promise me you won't stay out late," Joohyun said.
"You've got this, Seulgi."
Seulgi would take her word for it.
"It's been a pleasure speaking with you. I'll see you around more often starting next week."
"W-What? Does that mean-"
"Welcome to Revel Enterprises, Miss Kang. Congratulations."
Seulgi darted out the elevator and ran down the hallway, a childlike smile on her face as she thought of greeting Joohyun with good news. Then, as she stopped in front of their door, remembered their argument earlier that day. She closed her eyes and took a breath, temporarily setting aside her enthusiasm, and reached for the door knob.
As soon as the door gaped open, a body of fur rubbed against her leg. Seulgi went down on one knee, pet the cat, then noticed that it'd only been Lala that had welcomed her, and that Lala was wearing some sort of knit sweater.
"Where's Lulu, girl?" Seulgi asked her, scratching behind her ear to which Lala responded with soft purrs.
"Let's go find him," she said as she stood up and kicked off her heels, "and your other mom, too."
Seulgi walked further into their home, a wide grin growing across her lips as she heard Joohyun's sweet voice from the living room. Standing at the threshold separating the room from the hall, what Seulgi saw surprised her.
The living room was a mess of yarn and toys, and smack in the middle, was Joohyun seated on the floor, with Lulu cuddled up on her lap. Seulgi should really make a habit of coming home early.
"You like purple too, don't you? I think it suits you, Lulu," Joohyun cooed at the cat, who was wearing a sweater matching Lala's. Lulu stretched inside her arms, and Joohyun couldn't help but giggle from his cuteness. "Now, where did Lala run off to- Oh. Seul, you’re home."
Seulgi smiled, holding up a hand when the latter made a move to stand up. “Wait, don’t. I’ll come to you."
She took a seat right next to Joohyun, Lala joining, who'd climbed into the gap between Seulgi's crossed legs. "Hi," she said to her girlfriend as she inched closer so that their shoulders touched.
"Hey," Joohyun whispered back, slowly leaning in, then kissed her softly on the mouth. Her lips lingered for a moment before she began to pull away. Feeling greedy, Seulgi stole one more peck before they separated completely.
Joohyun covered Seulgi's mouth with her palm. "Before anything else, I just wanted to say sorry. Again," she paused to give Seulgi a stern look when the younger woman had mumbled against her hand, "I shouldn't have lost my temper like that. I would never want to hurt your feelings, or Lulu and Lala's. I should have been more patient. I'm sorry."
Seulgi gently removed the hand on , holding it in hers. "I apologize too," she said, "For not noticing how you felt any sooner. I'd been too consumed by my own emotions that I hadn't known you were going through the same."
"We both had our share." Joohyun wrapped her arms around Seulgi's neck and pulled her into a tight hug. "I love you, and I'm so proud of you, Seul. And...congratulations, by the way."
"How did you know?"
"I just do, dear," Joohyun laughed, kissing her lips. "I'm so happy for you."
"Thanks, couldn't have done it without you," Seulgi grinned. She looked down at the cats on their laps. "So, what've you guys been up to? Besides trashing the place, that is," she chuckled.
"Well, I wanted to try crocheting again, even if these two rascals kept insisting that my yarn was their toy at first."
Seulgi ran her hand over the sweater on Lala, admiring the handiwork. "These are really nice, Hyun," she complimented.
"They could've been better, though."
"I'm sure they love it."
"One more thing," Joohyun said as she dug into her pile of materials. She pulled out a yellow wool hat, and shyly handed it to Seulgi. "I kind of made you something too, since you love your fluffy hats so much...it's not the best, but-"
"I love it!" Seulgi exclaimed, wearing the hat on top of her head without hesitation.
Joohyun's cheeks warmed from flattery, and adjusted the hat on her girlfriend's head. "I'm glad."
Then, Lulu meowed from Joohyun's lap.
"Ah, that reminds me," Seulgi said, looking at the orange cat. "Since when did this little guy enjoy being held? He used to hate it when we did!"
"What can I say? I guess we have a special connection," Joohyun giggled and gave Lulu's head a few rubs.
"Yeah, whatever," Seulgi rolled her eyes.
"You were right, you know. When you said that I should spend more time with them. They really know how to put a smile on your face, even if they're little troublemakers sometimes," Joohyun said with a fond look towards the two cats.
Seulgi felt so happy that moment, and couldn't resist leaving a loud kiss on Joohyun's cheek. "Oh, I can't wait to have Seungwan, Sooyoung, and Yerim come over with Haetnim and Totori!" she said excitedly, a sparkle in her eyes.
"Wait, wait, wait, hold on. Let's not get too ahead of ourselves now. My hands are already full having to look after three babies at once."
Seul clicked her tongue in disapproval. "Says the one who absolutely loves to be babied and becomes all clingy and needy all the time-"
"Hey, hey! Be quiet, you! Lulu is trying to get some sleep," Joohyun interjected, hiding her rising blush with her hair. Seulgi laughed at her girlfriend's behavior, and even more.
Soon, the room was filled with Lulu's soft purrs, Lala's occasional meows, the couple's playful banter - and all Seulgi could think of was -
This. This is the sound of happiness. My happiness...