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With This Heart

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Sneaking past Huan Hua’s wards was a matter of wielding speed and distraction simultaneously. When living things passed through them, the wards sent out energy that alerted patrolling disciples of movement. The bigger, more powerful the creature, the more aggressive the energy response. Big demons lit up the whole field, but regular humans could get away with little blips that when timed just so, didn’t alert anyone to anything amiss.

Luo Binghe was not a regular human, but his cultivation level was so low that he might as well have been as far as the wards were concerned. It was a burden during lessons, but a small gift when it came to snagging time away from the bullies and the endless grunt work assigned by his shizun.

There was a family of boars that lived just along the border of the wards. Luo Binghe just had to find them when he wanted to get out, and then coax them to cross the border with some dinner scraps he’d brought from the kitchens. Then, he’d cross at the exact same time as they did. Any patrolling disciples that responded to the blip would see the boar family and move on.

It was silly, as far as plans went, but it always worked and this time was no different.

He jumped from the tree he’d perched in on the Huan Hua side, and landed awkwardly on the other side of the buzzing wards. His knees protested when he straightened; though improving slow, his lightened footsteps still weren’t good enough to keep him from feeling it when he made big jumps.

Dwelling on his failings was not how he liked to spend his little snatches of peace beyond the disapproving eye of the Palace master, so he set aside the pain, brushed himself off, and then hurried off into the gloom of the forest.

It was just before sundown. The light was a deep orange, and the birds and insects were beginning to warm up for their evening chorus. Lessons for his cultivation group were over and it was understood that then everyone would go study or meditate, but he just wanted to be alone for just a few hours.

Or, not alone. Just away from all of them. Somewhere he was appreciated.

A little way into the woods he found the first of the markers he’d set three months ago: a flat stone resting against a tree trunk. Then he found the second and third. Undergrowth clung to his legs as he made his way through the dense wood, but the wildlife paths showed him the way.

He crested a small incline, then slid carefully down the other side, before hopping over a little stream, then crawling through a particularly thick patch of bushes. He straightened once he was through, then spent a long moment squinting in the gloom before he spotted the dark opening to the cave, partially concealed by hanging ferns. 

He couldn’t help it then. A wide smile broke out onto his face as he hurried towards the cave. From the craggy entrance, it was less than a minute walk down a dark tunnel to the second smaller entrance, where he had to crouch to fit through.

Warmth billowed around him as he pulled himself onto the other side of the hole and the sweet scent of the crystal moon lilies tickled his nose.

The cave he’d just entered was just a bit larger than the woodshed where he kept his sleeping pallet. It had a high ceiling with a crack at its apex that let in a narrow shaft of moonlight. stones gathered along the edges of the space and moss covered the floor in a thick blanket. A very small spring bubbled at the far end, with a handful of tiny crystal moon lilies clinging to its edges, glittering a soft blue. A sword stuck straight up from the pool of water, probably directly from the crack that fed the spring. Its black handle and silver blade reflected the glow of the lilies. Looking directly at it made something stir beneath Luo Binghe's skin, so he looked away, toward the single bare stone sat before the flowers and the sword, just out of the water. 

In that stone was a lamp. Luo Binghe snapped his fingers, the wick flared to life and a warm glow filled the room. He knelt before the stone and pulled his offerings from the small pouch in his robes: two small sauce dishes, the lid to a tiny medicine pot, a small savory pancake, a little jar of tea, and a plum.

He cut the pancake into little pieces no bigger than his thumbnail and stacked them on one dish. Then he peeled the plum, diced it, and placed the little pieces in the other dish. Last, he poured the tea into the little lid and heated it with a finger tap and a tiny amount of qi. He made sure each dish was neatly arraigned on the stone, then he pulled the final piece from his little pouch: a silver bell. It tinkled softly as he set it down on the stone.

The moment the little bell touched the stone there was a soft scratching sound, followed by a tiny murrow.

A little figure peeked out from behind the stone, his body no taller than the length of Luo Binghe’s hand. He had fluffy grey cat ears and a thick, luxurious, grey tail to match. That little tail was currently swaying back and forth guardedly.

Luo Binghe understood. If he was that small and cute, he’d be cautious too. So, he made sure to sit perfectly still, holding his breath and fervently wishing that his heart would calm its rapid pace, lest its pounding scare the tiny thing away.

The little figure leaned further around the rock, large dark eyes reflecting suspicion when, suddenly, he stumbled. A second figure, just as small, pushed around him and scampered straight up to Luo Binghe.

Luo Binghe couldn’t help the beaming smile that cross his face as the second figure stopped at his knee.

This one had white ears instead of grey, and a sleek tail tipped with warm brown. A pair of bright, curious eyes peered up at him as the tiny man smiled, revealing two, tiny pointed fangs and the roundest, pinkest cheeks.

“A-Yuan,” Luo Binghe cooed and held out a hand.

A-Yuan clambered into Luo Binghe’s hand and knelt in his palm. Then he pointed up, towards the top of the stone.

“Of course.” Luo Binghe cradled him carefully and made sure to move slowly so that he wouldn’t get motion sick. He’d carried them both before, but it was always heart-stopping: holding such a delicate little thing in his big, calloused hands. They wore cultivator’s robes, but even those were so soft that he feared that simply snagging a nail in the fabric would destroy them.

“There you go,” he set A-Yuan on the stone, then turned to peer at little Qingge.

They did this every time Luo Binghe visited. Qingge scoped him out, made sure he was the same person who brought food the last time, before finally coming close. A-Yuan was no longer patient enough to wait until Qingge decided it was safe.

The little grey cat sulked up to his knee, pouting, ears low.

“It’s alright,” Luo Binghe kept his voice low and soothing as he held out his hand, “I brought plums.”

Qingge’s ears perked up.

“Plenty of plums,” Luo Binghe insisted.

Qingge sniffed but seemed to decide that plums were worth the indignity of being carried. He stepped into Luo Binghe’s palm and wrapped an arm around one of his fingers for balance.

He, like A-Yuan, weighed less than an apple. Every second he spent under Luo Binghe’s direct care was a second Luo Binghe spent trembling inside, overwhelmed by the magnitude of trust that had been placed in him.

No one had ever trusted Luo Binghe this much. It made his chest swell and his cheeks go hot. He became a thousand feet tall when the tiny cats were safe in his hands. Bigger than anyone at Huan Hua palace believed he could ever be.

He set Qingge down beside A-Yuan, who had already snagged a piece of pancake in both hands.

“Qingge.” A-Yuan held the piece out to Qingge.

Qingge meowed softly in response and accepted the pancake.

Luo Binghe sat back and watched avidly as the two little creatures descended on the meal he’d brought them. They were much too small for the amount of food they managed to pack away, but that wasn’t the strangest thing about them.

He’d stumbled on them by accident almost six months ago, while running away from the usual set of bullies. The wards hadn’t stopped them from chasing him, so when he spotted the entrance to this cave, he’d gone for it immediately. In his panic to get away, he’d pushed beyond the entrance, all the way to this little cavern.

The moss was more comfortable than his sleeping thin mat in the shed he occupied at Huan Hua, so he’d curled up into a miserable ball and laid there for nearly an hour before he heard the first, soft meow.

He’d looked up in time to see A-Yuan and Qingge watching him from behind the crystal moon lilies. That first look had been enough to make him forget why he was crying in a cave. They were so cute, so little, so unexpected.

A-Yuan had plucked a petal and handed it to Qingge. Then as quick and silent as a mouse, Qingge had darted forward with it in his hands. He hadn’t come right up to Luo Binghe that time, but he got close enough that there was no doubt he meant for Luo Binghe to take the petal. He set it down and then darted back to A-Yuan.

Crystal moon lilies were beautiful and rare, but they didn’t do anything special. They didn't heal or offer any boost in cultivation. The little cats had given him the petal because he was sad. It was the nicest thing anyone had done for him since his mother died.

Luo Binghe spent the rest of that night watching them, fascinated. Then the next night he tried to talk to them. And the night after that he brought food.

They didn’t let him touch them until it had been a few weeks and didn’t let him carry them until it had been at least a month.

Luo Binghe was content to go at their pace. When they used him as a climbing tree, he made sure to hold still so as not to startle them. He kept his nails neat and short in case they demanded scratches. He kept his voice low and careful and took studious notes of the food they liked and disliked.

All the while he tried to figure out exactly what they were.

Aside from being tiny, they seemed to be somewhere between cat and man. The more agitated they became, the more cat-like, and the calmer, the more human. Sometimes they had had paws instead of feet and hands, and occasionally they sprouted fur along their cheeks and forehead. They wrestled like kittens, groomed each other with their tongues, and Luo Binghe had been pricked once or twice by tiny cat claws.

They were undoubtedly intelligent. A-Yuan and gestured at Qingge, and repeated ‘Qingge’ in a tiny voice until Luo Binghe understood that that was his name. Then Qingge had pointed at A-Yuan and said ‘Yuan’. They couldn’t speak beyond that, but they didn’t need to. Luo Binghe understood each emphatic gesture and irate meow.

The most obvious option was that they were demons. But, after going through every book on demons available to him at Huan Hua, he hadn’t come across anything like them. So, second option, maybe they were some kind of fairies or nature spirits.

However, after plenty of research and observation, Luo Binghe decided that these two were probably cultivators. They used spiritual energy to leap up and down the taller stones, and the second time Luo Binghe had come with an injury, A-Yuan had pressed a hand to the cut and healed it with qi.

Where they came from, or how they wound up like this, he didn’t know. A curse? An acute qi deviation? The sword in the pool probably had something to do with it, but what? Whatever it was, it was beyond Luo Binghe’s skill to do anything about it.

Truth be told, he didn’t really care. All he cared about was the fact they needed him. He’d keep them safe, well-fed, and away from the bullies of Huan Hua Palace.

“Mew!”

Luo Binghe beamed down at little A-Yuan, “Finished?”

A-Yuan held up his arms. The order was clear. Luo Binghe set his hand down beside him and giggled at the tickle of A-Yuan’s robes brushing over his palm. He was about to lift his hand when Qingge abandoned the piece of plum he’d been nibbling on to throw himself after A-Yuan, sending them both sprawling across Luo Binghe’s fingers.

Luo Binghe let out a genuine laugh as the two of them briefly wrestled, flashing tiny fangs and claws, before A-Yuan finally pinned Qingge, with teeth clamped around one of his grey ears.

(Luo Binghe knew the truth: Qingge let A-Yuan win play fights. He always went boneless just as A-Yuan was starting to get tired.)

A-Yuan didn't know any better though. He released Qingge’s ear with a triumphant chirrup and then proceeded to start licking Qingge’s face.

Luo Binghe went warm, from his cheeks down to his toes as he slowly lifted his hand, and brought the two of them to his face. They were curled around each other now; grooming and clearly satisfied after their meal.

Luo Binghe brought them to his chest, letting his hair fall around them and shield them from the outside world.

It only took a minute or so before the rumbling started.

Purring.

It began with A-Yuan, deep and steady, before Qingge’s high, faster vocals joined. A-Yuan had stopped grooming Qingge but his tongue had not yet made it back in his mouth. They held each other; eyes half-open, limbs loose, and tails tangled together.

Luo Binghe very slowly leaned back, until his shoulders hit the mossy ground and the little tiny kitties were resting on his chest. He cupped a hand over them carefully, keeping them safe. They were so small, but he could feel the vibrations of their purrs deep in his sternum.

It soothed something wild in him, a darkness that crept around the edges of his heart. There was violence buried deep in his hands; he knew it. When his shizun pulled out his whip, or his peers took to punching and kicking him, a thing rose up. It wanted to close around their necks, rip into their chests and paint Huan Hua’s gaudy gold with the colors that came from inside their bodies. He could make them cry. Make them scream.

A-Yuan and Qingge kept that dark thing inside from growing any bigger. When he finally got strong enough to leave Huan Hua and survive on his own, he’d take the two of them with him. They’d find a somewhere safer than this cave—somewhere he could build them a proper little home. He’d sew them little cushions and many little robes. They’d have plenty of the best food, and they’d be able to nap in the sun without having to worry about being snatched up by someone who could hurt them.

He tilted his head so that he could see the reflection of the sword in the rippling water of the little pool. When the light of the lamp glinted off its edges it looked like it was lined with fire, and when Luo Binghe squinted, the reflection of the water on the blade, coupled with the light, made it look as though it was dripping blood. Something immense rippled beneath the surface of the metal. It called to the darkness in Luo Binghe, but it understood that they needed to wait.

Soon, the blade hummed.

Yes. Luo Binghe answered, looking away before the itch beneath his skin got to be too much. He dared to sweep a thump over the precious little ones on his chest, letting the warmth radiating off of them and sounds of their soft contentment settle him.

Soon.