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In the Soup!

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The night was mostly quiet. The rebuilt Four Seasons Manor was never truly quiet, after all. Lao Wen had built himself a wing dedicated to medicine that quickly pulled in every stray that fled the collapse of Healer Valley. The handful of former Window of Heaven operatives had a bad habit of adopting orphans, not that Zishu could say as much without Lao Wen laughing behind his fan. 

Which was all to say, the night was only mostly-quiet, but that was more than enough for Zishu to enjoy it drinking with his Lao Wen on the deck outside their quarters. Lao Wen was idly swinging his leg over the edge while explaining his plans to go looking for herbs in the autumn when it happened.

A small bundle of brown fur with black stripes leapt onto the trailing end of Lao Wen’s robe. It was small and silent, clinging with all four paws and its tiny teeth. It bared its teeth in silent threat. 

Zishu laughed and then cooed at the kitten.

“We’re not keeping it,” Lao Wen said. He grabbed it by the scruff and picked its paws off his robe one by one. He dropped it on the ground and nudged it away with his toe.

“I didn’t say anything about keeping it,” Zishu said. 

Lao Wen gave him a withering look that only deepened when Zishu laughed again. He insisted, “We’re not keeping it!”

“No one has said a thing about keeping it except for you.”

“This is like A’Xiang and the dog all over again.”

“Lao Wen.”

“Soup! It became soup!” Lao Wen waggled his finger at the kitten. “Get out of here! And don’t touch my chickens!”

Two days later, Zishu arrived to eat breakfast only to find Lao Wen frowning fiercely at his congee. There was a brown feather in his hair, but everyone seemed to know better than to mention it. Zishu took his place at Lao Wen’s right and reached out to touch his zhiji ’s arm only to be met with a snarl.

Eyebrows raised almost to his hairline, Zishu turned to A’Xiang who poorly hid a giggle in her fist. Weining beamed at her in that besotted fashion of his and gave Zishu no answers. Chengling, the last person allowed to sit at the head table, leaned over and whispered, “Wen shishu found a kitten in the hen house when he was collecting eggs this morning.”

Zishu laughed. “Did he throw the poor thing down the mountain?”

“A’Xu…” There was clear warning in that, but Chengling was the dearest idiot to ever live.

“That’s the thing. The kitten wasn’t bothering the hens. Big Brown was sitting on it and attacked when Wen shishu tried to take it out of her nest. That upset the others and all of the hens kicked him out.”

Lao Wen sat up stiffly and stared out at nothing. “A’Xu, I think it’s time we drop off our Chengling on that lout Shen Shen’s doorstep.”

“Master! Don’t be mad.”

“Oh, I’m not mad.”

Zishu loved his husband, he truly, ardently did, but what was the point of restoring his martial arts if he wasn’t going to use them? So he plucked the feather out of Lao Wen’s hair and let it drop to the table in front of him. 

Without a word, Lao Wen stood up and tipped his untouched bowl of congee over Zishu’s head. Then he stormed out with a shouted, “We’re not keeping it!”

Two weeks later found Zishu taking a nap in the sun while Lao Wen took the disciples down the mountain for supplies. The sun was just this side of too-warm, but a thin mountain breeze carrying the scent of blooming flowers kept him from moving. He wondered how long it would be until he and Lao Wen could take the summer off and leave the disciples to their own devices while they visited all of the landmarks Zishu wanted to see before the Nails took him.

The Nails, of course, were now nothing more than scars and nightmares, but they had gotten him out of the capital and out to the sights that inspired so much of the poetry his husband liked to recite. He would really like to get through the rest of his list. Probably at least not until A’Xiang had her first child and then that child was eating solid food. It would be quite a while, but he wouldn’t wish that stress on his husband. When they rebuilt the manor there’d been a massive row as Lao Wen tried to set up A’Xiang and her husband in separate rooms.

The entire manor came to life as Lao Wen returned with his ducklings. Heavy machines whirred underground as he disarmed the defenses long enough to entire and then set some of Zishu’s old subordinates to rearming them. They were familiar, comforting sounds. Zishu smiled.

The sun had moved enough that Zishu’s face was in the shade by the time Lao Wen found him. At first, Lao Wen said nothing. That alarmed Zishu enough that he cracked open his eyes, but, no, his husband was in one piece, clean and still wearing the clothes from that morning, so nothing should be so terrible as to warrant the absolute malice in his expression.

“What’s wrong?” Zishu sat up and the kitten tumbled from where it had been sleeping on his chest, down into his lap. It looked up at him, meowed, and then kneaded Zishu’s leg before settling down again.

“You’ve been feeding it scraps, haven’t you? We are not keeping this, this rapscallion!”

Zishu looked down at the ‘rapscallion’ in question. The kitten merely tilted its head to the side and began purring. Zishu turned his gaze back to his furious husband. “I haven’t feed it anything.”

Lao Wen gestured to the little thing in his lap, as if to say that the evidence showed otherwise.

“Are you the only one allowed to find me so handsome that I must be followed at all times?”

“You!” Lao Wen waggled his finger in Zishu’s face before picking up the kitten by the scruff and stalking away with its little legs thrashing wildly.

It wasn’t until three more weeks passed that Zishu discovered why the kitten couldn’t be dissuaded from staying in Four Seasons Manor -- and secondarily why it seemed to latch itself to Zishu several times a day and most nights. One of the disciples, formerly a handmaiden from Ghost Valley, had requested some Drunk Like a Dream incense to help her sleep. The nepenthes was expensive and difficult to acquire, so in the rebuilt manor, it was kept in Lao Wen’s private herb stores as opposed to the general or healing stores.

Making the incense was really the only reason Zishu had to visit the private closet, so he hadn’t entered it in some months. Therefore, what he found was a complete surprise. There, in the furthest corner from the door, half-hidden by a crate of clean bandage linen, was a bed made of Zishu’s inner robes and a bowl of picked-clean chicken bones.

He’d thought some of his robes had more tears lately, but blamed it on the cheap fabric he’d bought in Yueyang. Instead, the culprit had black stripes and was apparently being trained by Lao Wen to associate Zishu’s scent with food and safety. Zishu grinned, grabbed the nepenthes and left without disturbing anything.

Two days later, he woke in the middle of the night to Lao Wen loudly scolding the kitten and trying to pull it off of the bed. 

“Lao Wen…”

“One moment, A’Xu, I must punish this fiend.”

“Lao Wen, come back to bed.”

“Justice does not rest.”

“Either come back to bed, or patch up the holes they leave in my robes yourself.”

There was a pause and then a rustle of fabric and a soft thwump as Lao Wen dropped the kitten back onto their bed. He slipped under the duvet and draped himself over Zishu. “You weren’t supposed to find that.”

“Mmm. Go back to sleep.”

“You’re not mad?”

“Nah, I expect it from you. Now go back to sleep.”

“I love you, too.”