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Of Cats and Kittens

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It began, as some stories do, with a tiny white cat.

Though perhaps not very many stories do, one with good taste would agree that very good ones usually start with cats.

So there was a small white cat.

This small white cat lay curled up in the tightest of feline mantou on the not-terribly comfortable cushion on an ornate hardwood chair. This chair happened to sit in the sparsely furnished but still very elegant study of the most renowned cultivator this side of the world. Perhaps the cushion had to be that way so that he wouldn’t get too relaxed while doing work. The cat grumbled about it, but it was the softest thing in this room to curl on and wait.

There it lay, unmolested, drowsing through the night. It was just about to enjoy the window of morning sunlight creeping across the study floor when it was very rudely sat upon.

By aforementioned most powerful cultivator.

It was vicious. It was undignified. In the space of at least seven unmentionable oaths, claws were unsheathed, blood was drawn, his favourite inkwell overturned and the scrolls that had been meticulously sorted by Qiong Ding’s head disciple became a sadly disorganised mess on the floor.

Yue Qingyuan’s cultivation was peerless, but it wasn’t meant for altercations with tiny housecats. Still, he managed to get his hands around its wriggling eel-like body and held it up and away from himself.

Once it got a good look at his face, it hissed meaningfully but sheathed its claws.

“Are you going to claw me again?” Yue Qingyuan asked it. The cat looked away almost guiltily. So he gingerly brought it to his chest and called for his head disciple.

“Jin Qing, how did a cat get in here?”

His head disciple cycled between looking at the perpetrator and staring despairingly at the mess of scrolls on the floor. There were inkstains on them now!

“This disciple isn’t sure, shizun. It wasn’t there when I came in last night…” he answered after he took a good look at the cat. The cat gave him a very unimpressed look. “Where was it?” Jin Qing asked hesitantly.

“On my chair."

Jin Qing noticed the scratches on Yue Qingyuan's face and blanched. "...This disciple begs forgiveness, I should have been more alert…" Yue Qingyuan sighed and waved it off.

"It's fine, just make sure the windows and doors are shut tight before you leave next time." He looked down at the ball of fur that had curled up against his chest, looking surprisingly at home in his arms.

Then he noticed the shedding. It was very obvious against his dark robes and brushing at it did nothing. Yue Qingyuan sighed heavily again.

Trying to minimise the damage, he put the cat back on the floor, where it proceeded to twine against his legs and get the bottom hem of his robes speckled with white hairs. Nudging it with his foot didn't deter it at all. Jin Qing tried to be helpful and pick it up, only for the cat to yowl and swipe at him with its deadly claws. His poor disciple yelped and swiftly avoided being mauled.

Looking down at the cat attempting to hide itself in his robes and feeling a warm furl of flattered affection for this prickly cat and its biases, Yue Qingyuan couldn't bring himself to think of more forceful ways to be rid of his new shadow. It was a familiar, long-lost sentiment.

"Jin Qing, get the cat some water and food. This master will deal with the interloper later," Yue Qingyuan ordered. His head disciple rushed to obey, muttering that he'd return in a moment with the food and help clean up the mess.

When Jin Qing left, Yue Qingyuan looked down at the cat and hummed. "You remind me of someone I know. I'll feed you, but you can't stay."

The cat just looked at him with oddly intelligent eyes as if to say 'we'll see about that'. Yue Qingyuan frowned. He supposed cats wouldn't obey him just because he said so, the cultivation world and his position had nothing to do with little cats. So he just shook his head and went about picking up the items that had fallen to the floor. The cat prowled about and seemed to off-handedly nudge some of the scrolls his way. If Yue Qingyuan didn’t know better, it was as if it were contrite and angrily apologetic. Once Yue Qingyuan had picked up everything, he moved to sit at his desk, taking a quick look at his seat to make sure there wasn't another surprise waiting for him before sitting down.

Briskly reorganising his desk in his preferred arrangement, he picked up his first missive of the day. It was from Huan Hua Palace. A wonderful start to the day, Yue Qingyuan thought, his expression turning sour. Only to quickly morph to surprise as the cat leaped onto his desk, nimbly avoiding his inkwell and the numerous scrolls and missives and accounts he had to look at. (Yue Qingyuan was almost disappointed that it hadn't upset the accounts, then he might have had a reason to put off looking at it. He was sure that if it was urgent, it wouldn't come in the form of a hundred plus page monstrosity.)

The cat got straight in his face, squirming under the offending letter and into the circle of his arms and stared at him with its grass-green eyes.

"Mrew."

"I'm sorry, your food will be here in a moment but you really shouldn't get in the way of my work," Yue Qingyuan protested weakly. The cat gave a strongly unhappy look and reached up to very, very carefully, place a claw-less soft paw directly on the tip of his nose.

Yue Qingyuan would never admit, not even upon pain of death, that his insides may have strongly resembled the sweetest bean paste at this action. (Also, he most definitely did not flinch when the cat raised its paw.)

The cat gazed deeply into Yue Qingyuan’s eyes. Yue Qingyuan gazed back.

They really were very pretty eyes. Did cats usually have such green eyes?

The moment of silence was interrupted by Jin Qing returning with his morning pot of tea, a light pastry to start the day with and a small fried fish. The cat quickly retracted its paw at his clattering entrance and slithered its way over the edge of the desk into Yue Qingyuan’s lap.

More fur. At least he didn’t have to meet anyone important today, Yue Qingyuan thought, keenly glad that he could delegate things like laundry now. Jin Qing placed the pot of tea and pastry on a side table before looking around for the monstrous beast that had nearly clawed his eyes out.

“Did it leave, shizun?”

“No, it’s here.” Yue Qingyuan picked up the cat and dropped it on the floor. “Go on then, have your breakfast and get on with your day.” His lap felt oddly cold without the warm fluff curled on it, but cats did not belong in his study nor on his lap.

Jin Qing placed the dish in a corner and quickly scuttled away to wipe the floor and pick up the things that Yue Qingyuan had missed. The cat prowled past him with a dirty look, but set into the fried fish daintily as if it were the most high-bred of nobles. All it needed were chopsticks. And perhaps opposable thumbs.

Yue Qingyuan tried to focus on reading the letter again; yet another thinly-veiled insult disguised as an enquiry into the Sect’s handling of a minor incident. He was halfway through crafting a more diplomatic version of “get out of my face” when Jin Qing yelped.

“Get away from it, demon cat! That’s for shizun!”

Yue Qingyuan looked up only to find the cat leaping from the table with his pastry in its mouth, leaving a trail of pastry flakes leading to the corner where it had left an exceedingly clean fish skeleton. Jin Qing tried to swat at it with the cloth he had on hand as it zipped past him, but failed. Perhaps their cultivation training should include cats, Yue Qingyuan mused.

“It’s fine, Jin Qing, just.. Go get me another one.”

Jin Qing looked scandalised -- first, his sorted documents, now this! He wondered how he had displeased his ancestors recently. Maybe it was when he’d turned a blind eye to his fellow disciples placing bets on whether his shizun would manage to get 10 words in with the Qing Jing Peak Lord outside of the regular meetings this month? He bowed to Yue Qingyuan and vowed to make some offerings to the temple at the nearby town when he was allowed out next week.

Yue Qingyuan (very guiltily) welcomed this break in his routine. He got up and went to sit at the small table, pouring out his still warm tea and taking a sip. The fragrance of it was calming. Yue Qingyuan was startled out of his contemplation of whether he should attempt to send some of this tea to Shen Qingqiu when the cat leaped back onto the table, half of the pastry held delicately in its mouth. It placed it back in the plate and sat back, beginning to clean its whiskers of the stray flakes.

When it was done, Yue Qingyuan was still undecided as to whether to eat this offering. The cat looked uncertain for a moment, then nosed the plate in his direction.

Well. It wasn’t like he hadn’t eaten worse when he had lived on the streets with Shen Jiu. Shen Jiu had been very resourceful, and oftentimes vicious enough to try and fight with the stray cats and dogs for scraps of leftovers thrown out by restaurants. Shen Jiu always looked vaguely ashamed that this was all he could get for them, but he maintained that it was better than starving to death. Yue Qi had felt a strange mixture of heartbreak and affection for his Xiao Jiu and could only agree.

Shen Jiu had always made sure Yue Qi got at least half of what they had, if not more.

“You’re bigger than me, you need it.”

So Yue Qingyuan, with that odd mess of fondness and grief sitting heavy in his chest, picked up the proffered pastry and bit into it. The cat sniffed at his tea and lapped at it, before hopping into his lap and curling up. Yue Qingyuan ventured to pet it and found that it was very soft, and comfortingly warm. The cat began to purr the quietest of purrs.

Yue Qingyuan thought that perhaps this really was a wonderful start to the day.



Of course, once all that had happened, Cang Qiong Mountain Sect’s most illustrious Sect Leader had swiftly found himself adopted by a little white cat. A very strange little white cat, but still the sort of cat that lazed in sunbeams, shed furiously on his stately dark robes, and insisted on getting its little pink nose into all his food and whatever documents he happened to be looking at.

It followed Yue Qingyuan wherever he went much to the amusement of everyone on the mountain, but he had cultivated his most dangerously placid expression for situations such as these. His benevolent Buddha smile immediately quieted all whispers about the state of his robes and his little white tail. His disciples in charge of laundry were very much less amused. The cat was, however, most gracious when he asked it to kindly not shed on him until after important meetings.

Sometimes when he looked through whatever communications or paperwork that arrived at his desk, his cat would poke its head up from his lap and peer at the document in question. Similarly, when he wrote replies his cat was most attentive, even going so far as to express its opinion on some of his statements by biting his wrist. It had also looked at him in horror when he chewed the end of his brush distractedly, and that altercation had very nearly gotten him scratched as if he were a disciple again learning to read and write.

After a few days of this rather intelligent behaviour, he suspected it might be a spiritual animal and tried asking it once. He got a very complicated expression in return. A bit too complicated for a cat, he thought, and quietly revised his opinion on his new feline companion.

At a loss for what to call it, he simply called it A-Miao.

A-Miao was not impressed and appeared to try to make overtures at communication. Unfortunately, Yue Qingyuan for all his diplomatic smarts and understanding of the subtleties of politics was not adept at guessing games and whatever catscratch that passed for Chinese characters was completely lost on him. There was something that may have been a nine, but he couldn’t tell if it was in relation to the number of lives A-Miao had left, or the potential number of tails he could have (or maybe, a name). It might have also been the character for power. It was just too wobbly to tell. A-Miao seemed to be very frustrated by the lack of dexterity in his paws.

“It’s alright, A-Miao, you can tell me everything once you become a human.”

A-Miao curled into a mantou and ignored him.



Shen Qingqiu was gone.

Shen Jiu was gone.

Nobody knew where he was, his head disciple said that he had not mentioned a thing. There wasn’t a sign of struggle in his bamboo house, he had disappeared into thin air without a trace. It was as if he’d woken up one morning and just.. Left.

Perhaps he’d just taken a break. Maybe he’d gone to town, or went to pursue some research, or even to the brothel, anything. But it had been two, almost three weeks since his disciples last saw him and there hadn’t been any sightings of him in the town either. Yue Qingyuan had to bite back his terror and the anger that bubbled up in its place when he asked why they had taken so long to bring this matter to his attention.

The anger fizzled into heavy guilt as he realised that he hadn’t had cause to find out on his own earlier, because he’d been too distracted by his new cat. His new cat, that reminded him of his Xiao Jiu and was so very warm when he curled by his side at night. His new cat, that stared at him with his unnervingly green eyes as Yue Qingyuan questioned anyone that might have heard anything about his Xiao Jiu.

When the last person left his study leaving what precious little they knew changed, Yue Qingyuan slumped heavily in his chair and stared at his hands.

What was he going to do? What should he do? Did Shen Jiu leave of his own free will? Would Shen Jiu hate him if he sent someone looking for him? Was it worse if Shen Jiu was actually in trouble and Yue Qi would yet again, fail to save him? But then, Shen Qingqiu would usually inform him if he planned to leave the sect for business. He was still reliable when it came to his responsibilities to Yue Qingyuan, even if their relationship rarely went beyond it, not for lack of trying on Yue Qingyuan’s part.

He took a deep breath, then another. And yet another, for good measure. Shen Qingqiu would be fine. He should be fine. There was nothing to suggest that he was in danger (yet). He very carefully did not think about how there was nothing to suggest Shen Qingqiu was fine, either (and those long long days when he was left with the Qiu). Then he reached over for his brush to write a missive to the Peak of Secrets. They would know to be discreet in finding information. Yue Qingyuan cursed as his hands wouldn’t stop shaking, his characters smudged and ugly.

His descent into despair was very handily diverted by A-Miao and his lack of sense of personal space. It curled its way under his arm to slide under his hand, arching its back in an appeal to him to release his tightly clenched fingers. So he did, petting A-Miao until his hands stopped shaking. By then A-Miao had settled himself on his desk and looked up at him inquiringly.

“What do I do, A-Miao? Xiao Jiu is gone. What if I can’t find him? What if he doesn’t want to be found? What if.. What if…” Yue Qi could not bring himself to say it. But A-Miao seemed to get the picture anyway. A-Miao leaped into his lap, got up on his hind legs, pressed his front paws against Yue Qingyuan’s chest and looked him in the eye, as if trying to pass some sort of message along through eye contact. Unfortunately, neither of them were well-versed in this art. A-Miao seemed frustrated and batted Yue Qingyuan’s nose in a fit of pique, which made him laugh in surprise.

“It’s alright A-Miao. I’m sorry I can’t understand you. But thank you for comforting me anyway.” A-Miao’s tail lashed in irritation, but he continued to let Yue Qingyuan pet him. Eventually he was steady enough to write the message to the Peak of Secrets and send it off with one of his disciples. Hopefully they would find something out.



It became a very difficult few days after that revelation. Discussion with his fellow martial siblings brought him to the conclusion that it was not in the best interest of the Sect to put up missing posters all over the continent, no matter how desperate Yue Qingyuan was. He could understand their concerns, though any moment he was left alone he could not help but drown in his indecision, this forced helplessness. He really could be too impulsive though, so once the panic had passed (and after several rounds of recitations of the Five Remembrances), he pushed the thoughts aside and put on the ill-fitting mantle of Sect Leader. They would simply have to be discreet with their investigations.

A-Miao was very helpful in keeping him calm, his soothing purrs and warm weight on his lap a strong deterrent to him rushing off and abandoning the Sect to personally look for Xiao Jiu. (Who would feed A-Miao if he was gone?) Though in his wilder thoughts he considered the possibility of throwing his weight around, (his cultivation and standing were, after all, nothing to scoff at) he turned away from the idea. It would look bad for the Sect, and long discussions with his shifu and the shining example of Huan Hua Palace sat as a lesson that cultivating goodwill was much better for the stability and long-term survival of his sect and its people.

(It was also important because it was the only stability he had to offer Shen Jiu, and he would keep it safe as long as he could.)

This would inevitably lead to the idle wish that he wasn’t responsible for so many people and could just… be part of the background, nobody important. He’d occasionally entertained the thought that if he were perhaps a lowly outer disciple turned reluctant graduate cultivator, he could just request to be allowed to run errands then he would always have an excuse to run to Qing Jing peak to look at Shen Jiu. (It wasn’t as if working that hard on his cultivation had helped much, when it came to saving Xiao Jiu anyway.) It was silly, but he had long trodden down this path even though things were as they were and no amount of wishful thinking would make a difference.

He shared these thoughts with A-Miao once, and his feline friend laid in his lap and looked up at him with the most complicated look Yue Qingyuan had ever seen on him, though it might have been indigestion. Perhaps cats weren’t meant to have so much human food with all its seasonings, but A-Miao was undeterred, particularly when faced with desserts. Yue Qingyuan sighed. He wasn’t sure if he wanted a response, though perhaps the knowledge that there would be no response made it easier to confess his sins.

“A-Miao, I should have never left him with the Qiu. I’m sure that that was my biggest mistake.”

At that, A-Miao seemed to have had enough and slid out of his lap to stalk away and do his cat things. Yue Qingyuan felt bereft, his lap quickly cooling.

After that, A-Miao stopped following him around and keeping him company in his study. What he did when he was away, Yue Qingyuan had no idea. He had heard rumours that his cat was skulking around the libraries, but not much else. He really wouldn’t put it past A-Miao to be reading, the little cat always seemed a bit too smart.

Yue Qingyuan missed his little white tail, but when he returned to his quarters, A-Miao would always be waiting there, drowsy and full with a bit less than half of Yue Qingyuan’s dinner. Yue Qingyuan was not entirely sure where the food fit in his cat, but spiritual animals were something in which his knowledge was severely lacking. He... He’d had Shen Qingqiu for that. Yue Qingyuan would sit and finish his dinner, clean up, and settle into bed with A-Miao a fluffy little pillow breathing against his flank.

He could admit that having his cat still there kept away the nightmares and the what-ifs (and reminded him of a time when he had Xiao Jiu’s warmth curled into his side).

After a bit more than a week, Yue Qingyuan had just settled into this new routine before he was thrown for a loop yet again.

It was a very normal day, filled with discreet prodding in the general direction of the Peak of Secrets, other administrative duties that consisted of him writing polite letters to convince someone of something or other, overseeing his 20-ish disciples (and the trouble they managed to get into), pushing out vague lesson plans to his older disciples, and drinking tea while not thinking about Shen Jiu.

Normal, aside from the occasional smidge of panic when he remembered that Shen Qingqiu had yet to be found. But yet to be found didn’t mean… forever, and he held onto that desperate hope.

So he was not expecting to return to his room to find his cat curled in the middle of his bed in a messy nest of one of his softest robes (Guanyin, the hairs), with three small fluffy squirming lumps attached to his-- her? Front.

Yue Qingyuan had honestly not thought to check. But now there were more cats??

Yue Qingyuan walked out of his room, then back in.

A-Miao was still nursing three kittens. She looked at him with a very dark expression for a cat. Yue Qingyuan muddled towards his bed and had a closer look. They didn’t look newborn, he was fairly certain that he had heard that kittens came out naked. And besides, A-Miao hadn’t looked like a pregnant cat...

“A-Miao, where… where did you get them?” A-Miao looked at him as if he were stupid. Yue Qingyuan would admit, he sometimes was quite stupid but the question needed to be asked. Unfortunately it didn’t seem that there was anyone to answer it. “...So we’re keeping them, then?” he continued, at a loss. He couldn’t turn out kittens that couldn’t take care of themselves, and he certainly wouldn’t turn out his cat! Perhaps he might pass the kittens on to his disciples?

A-Miao looked shifty and kneaded at his robes nervously as her kittens kneaded at her belly. Yue Qingyuan gingerly reached out to pet the black fluff of one only for A-Miao to hiss at him and swipe at his fingers. She hadn’t been this antagonistic towards him since the day he sat on her. Yue Qingyuan felt vaguely hurt.

“I’m not going to take them away if you want to keep them, A-Miao!” he insisted. But even as he said it, A-Miao looked very conflicted, staring down at the kittens attached to her belly as if she had no idea what they were. Still, Yue Qingyuan knew when to take a hint. He called for a disciple to bring him a nice big shallow washing basket. When it arrived, he placed it in the warmest part of the room and calmly asked A-Miao to move away before carrying all three kittens and his (now A-Miao’s) robe over to the basket. A-Miao mewed at him in distress throughout it all, as if admonishing him to be careful. Once he’d carefully put them down, A-Miao crawled straight in and curled around her kittens.

Yue Qingyuan felt a twinge of disappointment when he realised that this meant that he wouldn’t have A-Miao curled into his side at night. He squashed it down and went to eat his portion of dinner (A-Miao did not forget this part of the routine, at least), before settling into bed. It was cold, even with his nice thick blanket. It took longer than usual for him to fall asleep.

In the night when he started to moan, his little white cat sat on his chest for a moment to quiet his anguished whispers for Xiao Jiu.



The kittens were getting bigger every day. Now they could roam around his room, tripping over each other and rolling about on their unsteady little paws, their little whiplike tails swishing left and right. A-Miao still looked at them as if she wasn’t sure what they were. Nevertheless, she continued to nurse them.

Jin Qing braved the possibility of A-Miao scratching his eyes out to coo at the little balls of fur and quickly asked his shifu if he could have one when they grew older. Catching A-Miao’s dangerous glare Yue Qingyuan deflected, saying it would depend on A-Miao. At the mention of the demon cat’s name, Jin Qing deflated like a balloon.

The upside of this sudden influx of felines was that A-Miao didn’t wander off as much and stayed in his room. Sometimes Yue Qingyuan took a well-deserved break to walk over to his quarters and check in on them. A-Miao occasionally would very graciously allow him to pet the kittens and he marvelled at their fine fur and minuscule toe beans. While he pet them, he would tell A-Miao about what he’d had to deal with, both internal and external affairs. Yue Qingyuan was certain he had never been this talkative in his entire life (except, perhaps.. With Xiao Jiu), but A-Miao seemed to want to hear what he had to say, so he continued. A-Miao would lie back in pleased amusement whenever Yue Qingyuan cursed out Huan Hua Palace, and he felt strangely pleased that at least his cat was supportive.

(He very much avoided the thought of what it meant for his personal life that he was using such inelegant words in order to get that pleased look on his cat’s face.)

Yue Qingyuan thought that maybe it was quite boring being stuck in the room with the kittens as well and endeavoured to visit a bit more often, sometimes with a nice snack. He felt a bit like a doting husband returning with food, but really that comparison was neither here nor there. He also did not feel especially proud when the kittens started climbing his robes, demonstrating their strength and dexterity. Definitely not proud enough to want to tell someone. Like perhaps his martial brothers and sisters. He did gush about it at A-Miao though, and praised her for taking good care of them. A-Miao looked reluctantly pleased, which still looked like it might also be indigestion (or one of the kittens biting too hard).

Then one day, he finally received some report on the progress of the investigation.

Nothing.

Absolutely nothing.

Yue Qingyuan folded up the note and fed it to the brazier in the corner of his room. Then he went back to his seat and picked up the next item on his desk. He went through his entire day, the hollow in his chest growing larger and larger with each passing moment. Once he had instructed Jin Qing that he was not to be disturbed before lunch tomorrow, he returned to his room. He carefully stepped over the kittens (he really should name them sometime), retrieved a jar from the back of his cupboard and sat down heavily at the table.

A-Miao had already eaten her share, but Yue Qingyuan didn’t have the stomach for food. He would pay for it tomorrow, but he didn’t care, he’d had worse. Instead he uncorked the jar, poured himself a cup of wine and knocked it back. It tasted of ash even though it was Zui Xian peak’s sweetest (and strongest) herbal brew.

A-Miao leaped up onto the table mewing her concern. She padded over to the empty cup and sniffed at it, rearing back as the fumes burnt her sensitive nose. A-Miao looked up at him questioningly. Yue Qingyuan shook his head helplessly, and poured himself another cupful. A-Miao watched as he took another cup, and another, reaching out with her paw as if to stop him, but her uncharacteristically weak attempts did nothing to dissuade Yue Qingyuan. He just let her paw slide off every time he lifted the cup to his lips. A-Miao sat back, shrinking herself into a loaf, after trying and failing to keep him from drinking.

If she really wanted to force the issue, he definitely wouldn’t be able to fight her off. After four or five mouthfuls, Yue Qingyuan could feel the fog of inebriation clouding his senses. Good, he thought. Another few more cups and he would be out for the count. He did not usually indulge, but it was useful for when he could not get to sleep. He had had a very bad feeling that he would be a weepy drunk (later confirmed by experiments when he was alone), and so he never drank enough to get more than a bit warm with his martial siblings. They all thought that he was too conservative, and unable to hold his drink.

It was more that he had too many secrets.

A-Miao was the first proper drinking companion he’d ever had in his life. He supposed he should savour it. He finally released the cup and reached out to pet her. A-Miao jumped as his hand descended, a bit heavier than his usual gentle pets. She mrrped worriedly at him but kept her distance. The kittens’ tiny mewlings filled the silence.

“A-Miao, Xiao Jiu is gone,” Yue Qingyuan murmurs. A-Miao presses her head into the cup of his palm, nuzzling him. Yue Qingyuan smiles weakly at the affection, then picks her up clumsily and holds her against his chest to run his hand down her back. She kneads at his chest nervously, but does not move away. Suddenly, he remembers how much his chest hurts and he curls down over her, falling in slow-motion like a great tree felled in a storm. That almost instinctual response to shield a gaping wound trapping his cat in the warm fold of his body.

“He’s gone, and I can’t find him,” Yue Qingyuan whispers, taking great heaving gasps that are almost, but not quite sobs. He presses his face against the soft white fur, feeling the tears drip from his eyes and wetting the downy softness of it. He can feel A-Miao purring, her paw reaching up to pet at his hair, his cheeks. His awareness of Xuan Su burns in the back of his mind, along his meridians, a clawing ache in his dantian, a never-ending reminder of his failure.

“What do I do, A-Miao, what do I do… I can’t get anything right. Back then, I shouldn’t have stopped looking, I should have believed he was still alive. I shouldn’t have made such a stupid mistake with my sword, then I could have found him sooner. I should have tried harder, I should have gone back earlier, I should have ... I should have taken him with me, I shouldn’t have left him behind, A-Miao, I can’t make it up to him and I can’t change the past, and he hates me even though I love him so much, what do I do if he’s not here?” Yue Qingyuan’s words left him all in a rush, his thoughts stumbling on top of each other in the haze of intoxication and the rush of fear. The most terrifying thought of all crawled its way to the top: a reality in which Shen Jiu was no longer there. Yue Qingyuan could barely stand it the first time he’d thought Shen Jiu... dead. And now, to face it again, Yue Qingyuan thought he might break apart.

That last thought brought a stop to all his words. He buried his face in A-Miao’s flank, his breaths heavy. He did not notice the way that A-Miao stilled in his embrace, barely breathing. They stayed that way for a few moments, human and cat curled around each other, lost in their thoughts.

After what seemed like a long while of heavy sniffles and kitten mewls, A-Miao shook herself out of her daze and miaowed loudly. She pushed at Yue Qingyuan’s head with her paws, squirming in his hold. He uncurled himself and looked down blearily at her. That was right. He still had a cat. And he still had the kittens, and he still had the Sect. It would have to do.

(Quietly, meanly, Yue Qi thought he would give it all up for Shen Jiu.)

“I’m sorry, A-Miao,” he murmurs, trying to wipe at her damp fur with his sleeve. She wormed out of his grasp, and pointedly nudges the cup away. He blinks at her then nods wearily, but when he tries to get up, A-Miao yowls at him. When Yue Qingyuan looks down at her in surprise, she nudges the plates of food in his direction.

“I don’t feel like eating, A-Miao,” he says helplessly. That bit of crying has left his head feeling heavy and the languid warmth of the alcohol calls him to sleep. Anything to escape the awful hollow feeling in his chest. But A-Miao is insistent. He picks up his chopsticks and swallows a few mouthfuls of rice before waving her off, loosening his robes and stumbling into bed. Just as he’s about to drop off, his mind still whirling around and around in a cycle of despair and guilt, he feels A-Miao leap onto the bed and curl into his side.

It’s warm, and he falls asleep to the memory of Xiao Jiu’s soft breathing in his arms.



The next morning, he wakes up at an almost decent time of the day, thanks to his body alarm. As expected, he’s paying for that moment of weakness, his eyes gummy and puffy and his head aching. Luckily, he’s a cultivator and so he spends some moments with his eyes closed, cycling qi through his meridians and aggressively directing spiritual energy to his head. By the time the pain recedes (but not the awful taste in his mouth), he has remembered everything that happened last night.

Well. At least it was with his cat, and not a living, breathing person. Though his cat might eventually become a living, breathing person, he hoped that it would happen after he left this plane of existence.

Yue Qingyuan slowly levered himself upright, grimacing at his rumpled clothes. He then moved to his table, where his dinner plates had been picked clean. He supposed that A-Miao had had breakfast, then. But the pot of tea was still mostly full so he availed himself of some cold tea. He dearly wanted to pour it over his head, but he had disciples to run errands for him, so he called Jin Qing to bring him breakfast and a basin of water.

Yue Qingyuan goes to play with the kittens while he waits, only to find A-Miao gone. It wasn’t very strange, she did occasionally go for walks to take care of her business, but he was strangely glad that he didn’t have to look her in the eye so soon after what happened last night.

He picks up the slightly lost looking ginger one, still small enough to fit in his hand and begins to pet it. It purrs a very tiny squeaky purr. He thinks he might call it A-Cheng. Perhaps as a kitten under the care of the Sect Leader, it should have a more majestic name, but Yue Qingyuan thought that a bit too pretentious. Though if he thought about it, A-Miao would definitely need a better name once she could turn into a human. Yue Qingyuan also couldn’t tell which kittens were male or female to give them better names, though he’d tried under the unimpressed stare of A-Miao.

Yue Qingyuan was very calmly playing with (harassing) the small kittens when there was a sharp rapping on his door. Thinking it was Jin Qing, he got up to open the door, only to find Mu Qingfang waiting for him. A-Miao slipped in between their feet and made a beeline for the basket. Mu Qingfang looked at him serenely, with an air of almost palpable disappointment. Yue Qingyuan tried not to let his discomfort show, he knew he wasn’t looking his best.

“Is something the matter, Mu-shidi?”

“Zhangmen-shixiong, good morning. It has to do with Shen-shixiong.”

The moment Mu Qingfang mentioned Shen Qingqiu, Yue Qingyuan was fully alert, even as a curl of dread wrapped itself around his heart.

“What is it?” he asked, trying not to metaphorically pounce on Mu Qingfang for answers.

“We’ve found him,” he answers, something like amusement and more obviously, interest shining in his eyes. “He’s fine,” he hurries to add, and the rush of relief almost brings Yue Qingyuan to his knees.

“Where?” he manages to ask, only for Mu Qingfang’s smile to grow unreasonably wide.

“He’s behind you.” Yue Qingyuan stalls for a moment, then whips around only to find A-Miao on the table lapping at his cold tea. Is Mu Qingfang playing games with him? Only, when A-Miao hears Mu Qingfang calling for Shen-shixiong, she sits back on her haunches and gives Yue Qingyuan a very, very familiar look.

Oh.

Oh dear.

This was much worse than him crying on his cat about the only person he thought he could ever love.

He’d cried on the only person he thought he could ever love.

Yue Qingyuan was suddenly filled with a deep and abiding yearning for a demon invasion to distract him from all of this, it would definitely put off his impending rejection for just a bit longer.



After that, things moved fairly quickly. Shen Qingqiu had crawled under his bed to retrieve the artifact that he’d been studying, after which they sat down and discussed what they were going to do to return Shen Qingqiu back to his rightful form. Yue Qingyuan very cleverly kept their meeting limited to Mu Qingfang, Shen Qingqiu, and himself, as the thought of what Shen Qingqiu might do if Liu Qingge were to scoff at him seemed very dire indeed. After the discussion, Shen Qingqiu left quietly. The rest of the day was filled with his usual duties, as Mu Qingfang worked to find more information. In the evening,Yue Qingyuan began the trek back to his quarters feeling the day weigh on his bones. He was glad of course, that Shen Qingqiu was safe, if indisposed. It was a terrible weight off his shoulders and his heart.

But he was going to miss his feline companion. And there was still that other issue of things he should have never brought to light. He didn’t know what would happen now, what other ways he might have wronged and burdened Shen Qingqiu by his confession, and how it would manifest once Shen Qingqiu returned to himself. Though to be fair, it wasn’t as if he could have known that it was Shen Jiu. This was not much of a consolation when faced with the possibility of Shen Jiu’s rejection.

When he reached his quarters, he took a deep breath before opening the doors. He fully expected his room to be empty, a long-cold washing basket sitting near the brazier that kept his room warm, devoid of kittens and cat.

But when he stepped in, he was swiftly beset by roly poly kittens and the view of Shen Jiu sitting by his dinner, cleaning his whiskers. Yue Qingyuan stood in the doorway a moment, certain it was a dream. Then Shen Jiu looked up and mewed at him, shocking him out of his stupor. The kittens had started to try and make their way out, so he gently herded them back in before closing the door.

There was a little bit more than half of his dinner left waiting for him. Yue Qingyuan sat and looked at it for a moment. A moment long enough for Shen Jiu to nudge his rice bowl towards him. Yue Qingyuan looked at Shen Jiu, then poured out a cup of tea for Shen Jiu to stick his nose into. Then he picked up his chopsticks and began to eat.



It didn’t take very long to figure out what to do, though the explanations went straight past Yue Qingyuan’s head. All he could think about was how Shen Jiu might not spend much time with him anymore once he was a human again. After confirming the safety of the procedure and gaining Shen Qingqiu’s agreement, he half-heartedly approved the requisition of resources for the array that would reverse the effects of the artifact.

On the day itself, Yue Qingyuan was beside himself with worry. He had every faith in Mu Qingfang’s work, but still. Shen Qingqiu had spent several days before in the Lingxi caves, working with Mu Qingfang and double checking his work. If Mu Qingfang thought it strange to discuss such things with what appeared to be a cat, he did not show it. There had been a session of increasingly frustrated feline gesturing, after which Yue Qingyuan brought the basket complete with kittens to the Lingxi caves so that Shen Qingqiu didn’t need to leave to feed the kittens. His room was quiet without them.

As Mu Qingfang began activating the array, Yue Qingyuan took one last longing look at his little white cat. Shen Qingqiu sat back, looking expectant and nervous. The array began to hum louder and louder and Mu Qingfang raised his mallet to break the artifact to release its energies. But just as he brought the mallet down, Yue Qingyuan saw Shen Qingqiu’s head whip to the side, his mouth open in the beginnings of a yowl before there was a loud crack and he was consumed by blinding light.

Yue Qingyuan’s heart leaped to his throat, thinking that something might have gone wrong. The moment the light began to fade, he rushed forward with an extra robe in hand. He tried to blink the spots away, for a moment terrified at what he might find. But all that was there was Shen Jiu, crouched on the floor with his head in his hands, perfectly human and whole -- and very naked. Yue Qingyuan quickly draped the robe around his shoulders.

“Are you alright, Shen-shixiong?” Mu Qingfang called.

Shen Qingqiu’s snippy reply was interrupted by shrieking wails. Yue Qingyuan jumped, looking around for the source of the noise. Shen Qingqiu immediately seemed to recover from his discomfort, leaping to his feet and tying the robe round his body before running towards three.. Babies. Lying at the edge of the array.

Babies??

Yue Qingyuan’s brain has had a very very long month and this is the absolute last straw.

Why are there babies?

Shen Qingqiu carefully picks one up and hands it -- her, Yue Qingyuan can tell, relieved that he isn’t completely useless -- to Yue Qingyuan, snapping at him to wrap her in his robe. Shen Qingqiu then grabs the robe from the wash basket to swaddle the second baby, while the last is handled by Mu Qingfang whose clever hands make quick work of wrapping the baby in his own outer robe. Seeing that Yue Qingyuan has yet to do anything and is just holding a screaming naked baby, Shen Qingqiu curses and places his charge in the basket before moving over to help Yue Qingyuan.

Yue Qingyuan watches Shen Jiu helplessly as he grabs the screaming child, opening his robe to curl her close to his chest and cover her with his own robe. She quietens a bit, but continues to make small unhappy mewls against Shen Jiu’s chest.

Shen Jiu has never looked more beautiful.

“Xiao Jiu..”

“What!” Shen Jiu snaps, his cheeks flushed as he jabs his finger into the meat of Yue Qi’s chest. “Why didn’t you make sure they were occupied? Now they’re… they’re babies! And you can’t even obey a single order, hand over your outer robe, she’s shivering!”

As he shrugs out of his robe, Yue Qi thinks of those days he spent with Shen Jiu in his lap, allowing himself to be pet. All the meals that he shared with him, a little bit more than half for Yue Qi. The nights made less cold and lonely by the warmth of Shen Jiu by his side, even though he could not have known it was him, Shen Jiu still stayed, was always.. there.

“Xiao Jiu, I love you.”

The confession drops out of Yue Qi unbidden, and the colour in Shen Jiu’s cheeks darken, his flush spreading down to his chest and pinking the tips of his ears as he sputters. Mu Qingfang pointedly turns away but announces over the shrieks that the babies seem healthy, if a bit shocked. That jolts Shen Jiu out of his uncharacteristic lack of barbs.

“We are talking about this later, now help me with the kittens,” Shen Jiu hisses, before walking towards Mu Qingfang to soothe his kitten-babies and discuss their care. Yue Qi watches him go, hope a tiny flutter in his chest.

He said later, as if it were a promise.

Yue Qingyuan moves to help him with the kitten-babies (glad that he hadn’t had the time to name them silly cat names) and thinks that this might be a wonderful start to the rest of his life.