When the deal that changes his life is made, Junhui is thoroughly enjoying only the second course of many in his cousin’s wedding banquet. The air around him smells of spiced meats and roasted vegetables and the sweetest of cakes. The room is loud with conversation and laughter, people high on the celebration.
Jun is ungraciously shoving a perfectly cooked piece of chicken into his mouth, trying not to pay too much attention to his mother’s and aunt’s comments on how the Zhang family really did a proper banquet. Not like the Féng’s.
“You know a banquet without chicken is just dinner, Junhui!” His mother tells him, face already slightly flushed from the wine. But she is happy, so Jun is happy.
Everyone around them laughs, and he nods along, focusing on eating and not the repeating of an old epigram he’s heard a thousand times and will hear a thousand more. He doesn’t mind it though, not really. Certain words and phrases he has found are repeated for a reason, their meanings and lessons lasting generations for a good cause.
The food is as welcome as it is good. He is hungry and has spent the day enjoying the festivities. Still, he is not using this celebration for an excuse to partake in overindulging. Regardless of this being his cousin’s joyous wedding day, Jun is still tied to his work. He cannot ignore his cormorant birds nor his small boat rocking against the shore a few li from here. He knows better than to drink too much, he’ll have to head out to fish in the early morning hours before some of the other guests have even gone to bed.
He’s about to take another bite of chicken when it happens. He ends up stopping the motion halfway, his chopsticks pausing in front of his mouth.
“You bastard!” A female voice curses above the noise, and everyone stops to look over at the source.
One of the local girls, Mei, is standing with her arms crossed and her face as red as the bride’s Qipao. Jun, of course, knows her. Their town is small enough for him to know most people. He played as a child with Mei, remembers her as full of cheerful shrieks and always having dirty knees. It confuses him, how or why she would be so upset until Jun sees who is sitting at the table in front of her. Xu Minghao.
“You think you’re too good for everyone in this town!” Mei accuses the boy, who sits there with his normally smooth and elegant features pulled into a grimace. He somehow still manages to look attractive. “You turn down everyone without ever giving us a chance! You are selfish and you may think you choose to be alone, but well, one day you’re going to look back and regret it!”
Mei has tears in her eyes now and from where Jun is sitting, he can see her fighting to hold them back. Everyone at the wedding banquet is looking at her and Xu Minghao. Everyone consists of almost their entire town. And everyone knows what Mei says holds some truth.
Xu Minghao, who has remained silent throughout this entire interaction, stands. He is taller than Mei by almost a foot, his lithe body draped in a silk hanfu for the occasion. His skin is golden and smooth, his features sharp from his eyes to the slight points of his ears.
He looks otherworldly, Jun thinks, like some blessed or magicked being among us mortals. He is, of course, just another boy who has grown up in their town. He’s smart though, determined enough to become a scholar, dedicated to mastering the four arts. A much different life to Jun’s own as a fisherman.
“I’ll make you and everyone else a deal then,” Xu Minghao says, brows furrowed. He licks his pink lips and glances around the room. His eyes catch Jun’s own for the briefest of moments. “When I get home tonight, I will tie this key to my house around my cat’s neck,” He pulls a bronze key with the end in the shape of a dragonfly from his pocket and holds it out for Mei and everyone else to see.
Jun lifts a brow, confused and intrigued. His chicken is long forgotten.
Almost everyone in town knows of the cat in question, and Jun certainly does. A lanky tomcat with sleek black fur that’s always trotting around like it’s on some sort of mission. It’s also a skittish creature. Smart and overly cautious. A few times Jun has been cleaning fish at the end of the workday and spotted the cat, tossing it scraps only for it to run away. It is the only cat in the whole town that doesn’t love him, so of course, he knows it.
Xu Minghao takes a deep breath, and when he speaks his voice is clear as a cloudless morning. “anyone who catches the cat and gets the key can come into my house. And the person who succeeds in this, I will marry.”
There’s a collective gasp.
Jun himself stares at the handsome young man, eyes bulging. Xu Minghao had been pined and lusted over by all, and each time the young scholar had turned them all down. And now this? It is hard for most to believe. But believing that anyone will succeed in catching the cat and key in this ludicrous bargain just makes Jun shake his head, returning to his chicken. And because he knows all the local cats - he knows the type of cat Xu Minghao owns. And it is far harder for him to believe that anyone will succeed in such a feat, than such a proposition being made.
The first few weeks following Minghao’s declaration result in the sight of men and women alike chasing all black cats around town. Of course, the one they are after when actually spotted leaves people cursing and kicking at the dirt in frustration.
Jun is on his way home from fishing one day, his two cormorants perched on his staff that rests on his shoulders, when he sees another group of girls trying to catch the cat. He stops and watches, an amused smile tugging on his lips. The birds are less amused by the spectacle.
Xu Minghao’s black cat is too fast and too clever by half to ever be caught. Both Minghao and himself have known this from the beginning. And they know this is why such a deal can be made, as it can never be fulfilled if no one can catch the cat. Though, Jun still finds it reckless to rely on even the best of animals this way. A lot of trust in one cat.
“I’m going to set a trap,” Yanan, his friend who works farming rice in the fields south of town tells him. He leans against the dye shop he had just come out of. His mother’s and the shop owner’s voices remain chatting, muffled within. “The cat is too fast to run after. But I can outsmart it.”
Jun shakes his head. “No, you can’t. That cat isn’t like other cats. Minghao knew what he was doing when he made that deal. You’re a lot of fools if you think it’s worth your time and effort chasing after some damn cat.”
“You think Minghao to be as cruel as to give us all an impossible mission?”
“I think that if Minghao really wanted to marry, he would not have chosen this ridiculous route,” Jun tells him, bumping his shoulder into Yanan’s playfully. One of his birds makes a disapproving sound. “He is too smart to leave something so significant up to chance.” He pauses, watching as one of the village girls tries to sneak up behind the black cat, only for it to pounce from atop her shoulder then to the roof of a building. “But then again, perhaps what he has done is the smart thing to do.”
“Of course, he wants to marry,” Yanan replies, ignoring the rest of Jun’s statement. He is now looking at the girl who is pouting in frustration, his eyes flickering over her figure. “Everyone wants to marry. And everyone but you wants to marry Xu Minghao. He’s a scholar with position, prestige, power, and he’s as handsome as a prince. You don’t have to worry about your mother telling you how a beautiful name beats beautiful looks. He has it all.”
Jun lets out a soft breathy laugh, turning to give his friend an incredulous look. “No man is a perfect man; no gold is sufficiently bare,” He says, as he has heard his mother and other relatives say countless times. Nobody is perfect. Not even Xu Minghao.
Yanan is right though. Jun seems to be the only one not caught up in this craze around the young scholar. And he never has been, even before this deal was made. He’s admired the other boy surely, but he can’t seem to ever imagine being friends with him, let alone falling in love. Their lives are too different, their passions lying worlds apart. The only thing he could ever imagine them having in common is a love for cats, and Xu Minghao’s cat is the only one who doesn’t like him, so none of it matters.
“Besides, I have better things to be doing than chasing a cat around.” He says, lifting his chin towards one of his birds to show his meaning. “Cats, if you’ve forgotten, tend to be the ones chasing me around.”
At that, he bends down and pets the tabby that has been rubbing against his ankle for the entirety of their conversation. It’s a sweet thing with a scarred nose and green eyes. It licks at his hands, which despite being washed thoroughly with soap made of jasmine and lemon earlier, still smell of fish to the cat’s keen nose. That is part of the reason his birds and all the cats love him.
“You have the best chance then,” Yanan says, not joining Jun in petting the cat.
He doesn’t care for them beyond their practical purposes of keeping the rodent population low. And he isn’t alone in his position. Jun isn’t the favourite fisherman of the cats because he’s the best looking (though, in his opinion, he clearly is), he’s the favourite because he’s the only one who shares the fish scraps with them. The other fisherman only shares with their birds. Jun is the only one who has a gentle hand and soft words at the end of the day for them. Much to his horror, he’s seen older, more grizzled fisherman kick cats searching the shoreline for food right into the water. Jun would never. Which is why he’s the favourite.
“Even I haven’t managed to tame that cat,” he replies simply, standing up. “So, I doubt you or anyone else in this town will manage to.”
Yanan’s mother exits the shop, and his friend turns to give Jun a final conspiratorial smile before following her. “You wound me if you think I cannot outsmart a cat,” he says with a wink. “Fate can bring even those a thousand li apart to meet together.”
Jun rolls his eyes at his friend then adjusts his staff with his birds and heads for home.
While a farmer like Yanan or even a fisherman like himself plays an important role in their town and their country as providers, second in the social hierarchy, it is still foolish to think they aren’t a thousand li apart from the scholarly life of Xu Minghao. But then again, who is Jun to question such a proverb or even fate?
It is a few days after his conversation with Yanan, (he found out from Jieqiong that his friend failed in catching the cat in a trap but succeeded in making a fool of himself in front of half the town in the process) when Jun spots Minghao’s black cat.
It is still early morning for most, though Jun has been awake for hours. He has just sent the day’s catch with one of the younger local boys to make deliveries and to drop the rest off with Jun’s mother at her stall at the market. He usually joins her when he is done caring for his birds, cleaning his rod, hooks, boat, and making any repairs needed.
Jun’s father was a fisherman too before he died of a fever two winters past. He was the one who taught Jun the art of fishing with birds. He taught him the importance of building a relationship, a partnership with the animals. He was the one who taught Jun to be kind to creatures, to the cats. Jun is sometimes reminded of his father when he sees all the cats waiting for him when he returns from fishing, his small boat full of fish and his birds satiated.
Though he has not brought out the fish for the cats, they know it won’t be long. They are smart creatures. There are already cats milling along the shorefront, including Xu Minghao’s much sought black one. A few are meowing at him as if to tell him to hurry up and share with them. They know the routine as well as he does.
He meows back.
He is still determined to befriend that cat. But instead of chasing after the black cat, or trying to trick it, Jun just does what he always does. He picks up the fish that are too small or the wrong type for most buyers and begins to toss them at the cats.
They meow at him even louder.
“Hello, my sweet babies,” Jun coos at them, bending down to pet a familiar grey cat. He is quickly surrounded; heads being rubbed against him and eager and affectionate tongues tasting him. He lets out a giggle at the tickling sensation of their rough tongues against his skin. “How are my darling angels today?”
He reaches into the basket in his boat and brings out more fish for them. He loves doing this. He loves their attention, their soft bellies and little feet. Jun sometimes wonders if he would still love them even if they weren’t cute, but then the reasons that their being cute must be part of their survival technique. It has clearly worked on him.
He is grateful his birds are not jealous creatures.
Xu Minghao’s black cat is curious. It has crept closer than normal, though is still being cautious, despite the food and the clear sign from all the other cats that Jun is safe. He is a friend.
The bronze key with its end shaped like a dragonfly still hangs around the cat’s neck. It seems unbothered by its presence, despite it being the cause of all the cat’s recent troubles. It surely has not had much luck in relaxing since its owner’s proclamation. If Jun were the cat, he would be quite annoyed with his handsome owner.
Jun grabs another fish and the meowing increases in volume again. But instead of just dropping it on the ground for them to fight over or handing it to one of the skinnier ones, he holds it out towards the black cat, clicking his tongue.
“Here you go,” he says softly, a gentle smile on his face. “This one’s for you, kitten. I don’t mind sharing.”
The cat, if it is possible, gives him a look that is both suspicious and skeptical.
Jun is almost insulted. Then he remembers how the poor cat has been hunted throughout town for the past few weeks.
“I’m not going to try to catch you,” he says, tossing the fish as carefully as he can. He doesn’t want to spook it away as he has in the past, though he’s sure the fish wouldn’t go to waste, the other cats would get it quickly enough.
When finally he tosses the fish the black cat impressively catches it in its mouth and darts away with it quickly.
“You’re welcome!” He calls after it with a chuckle, smiling. Perhaps the whole town chasing after the cat would be a good thing for him. It would be easier to befriend if he was the only one treating it nicely. And he has food. Soon maybe all the cats in town would love him.
After his first small victory, Jun is even more determined to befriend the cat. He knows it’s possible now, and the cat knows that he has food, even if he can’t trust him about anything else. Which, Jun has decided is rather fair on the black cat’s side of things. It is being rigorously hunted throughout the town.
He tries many techniques to get the cat closer, to touch him, to show it he is not like the others – that he deserves the cat’s trust and friendship. Some of them work better than others. Time and patience is the truly important part.
“Kitten,” Jun calls softly on a cloudy day, lying on his stomach on the rocky riverbank. It’s uncomfortable, but he’s determined to stay still. Xu Minghao’s black cat is watching him curiously from about half a li away. “I have a treat for you!”
Jun holds up the tiny fish that he caught himself just for this purpose. He had brought out his infrequently used rod and hook to catch it, not wanting to use any sellable fish in his admittedly childish attempts to befriend the cat. And his birds, of course, ate any of the smaller fish they caught, earning them for working hard. So, he had gone out of his way to catch this little fish for the cat.
The cat begins to walk closer and closer, watching him carefully. It seems as cautious of Jun as he is confused by him. Which is probably fair, as Jun is a grown man lying on the riverbank calling at a cat.
“Kitten,” he repeats when the cat is almost to him, nose out and sniffing the air. “I’m not going to toss it to you this time,” he tells the cat. “you have to come get it from me if you want it.”
The cat stops walking and looks at him. Its tail flicks behind him as he looks around quickly as if searching for the tricks that sure to come with free food.
“I just want to be your friend, kitten,” he tells the cat honestly. He can see an orange cat with stripes like a sun-bleached tiger making its way down the hillside toward the riverbank. If Xu Minghao’s cat doesn’t want the fish, it will surely take it.
The black cat seems to sense the other cat’s arrival too. It looks back at Jun and the fish in his hand, making the decision to take a risk for food. It walks up to Jun cautiously, then grabs the little fish and trots off quickly.
Jun considers that another success.
It isn’t too long before the black cat is coming up more easily to get food from Jun’s hand. But it takes another few weeks to get the black cat to really trust him. Allowing proper petting on his ears, some belly rubs. Sooner than he thought possible, it is like all the other cats in town, waiting for him each morning at the waterfront.
And all the while, the hunt for the cat and its key continue.
Of course, Jun considers himself more successful in getting closer to Xu Minghao’s cat than anyone else, and he’s not even trying to steal the key from around its neck. Instead, he finds small victories each time the cat gets close enough to steal a small pet on the head or a feel of its soft tail.
It’s a hot cloudless morning, his tasks for the day done, including feeding all the local strays. Though, that’s more a privilege than a task in Jun’s books. They’ve mostly dispersed, left him to go on their own adventures. He likes that about cats. Sometimes they seem like they are so busy with places to be, and then he’ll spot them rolling in the dirt or taking a nap in the shade of a building.
He’s sitting on a large rock on the edge of the shoreline, pants rolled up to his knees, feet dangling in the clear water. His birds are swimming in the water, diving for fish of their own to eat. His shirt is on the rock next to him in a crumpled mess, discarded in the heat. Beneath his bamboo hat, his long dark hair is loose, dancing past his shoulders in the slightest of breezes. Jun wishes there was more a breeze. It’s too hot to do anything in weather like this. Well, besides swim that is.
Jun is about to push himself off the edge of the rock and join his birds in the cool water when he feels a soft warm head rub against his elbow. He looks down and lets out a quiet surprised gasp when he sees a now familiar black cat looking up at him.
“Oh, hello to you too,” he says with a happy sigh. “I’m afraid you missed the fish. Though, you like me for more than that, don’t you, kitten?”
The cat hops into his lap.
He takes that as a yes.
Jun continues to slowly kick his feet in the water, relishing in the small relief it is as the sun shines down hot and unforgiving. He can’t just jump in now that the cat he’s been trying to befriend is here. Not yet, at least.
The cat rubs against Jun’s bare chest, tickling him and making him laugh.
“What are you doing, kitten?” He asks, putting a hand out for it to rub on instead. He is surprised by the affection. It was only a few weeks ago that the cat wouldn’t even take fish from him. “You silly little thing are too cute and too loveable, you know that?”
The cat stretches its neck to rub against Jun’s hand. The metal of the key that still hangs there is warm to the touch. It would be so easy to take. The key everyone else is chasing for is in his reach, it would be a simple thing to slip over the cat’s head.
“You’re lucky I’m not like everyone else,” he tells the cat, voicing his thoughts aloud. He tugs gently on the key but makes no effort to remove it. “I don’t want to steal that key around your neck. So, you better not let your owner see you snuggled up to me like this, kitten.” he teases, rubbing his thumb into the cat’s jaw in the way he knows all cats like. “He may get offended.”
The black cat purrs in response.
Jun laughs softly before pushing the cat away gently. He is sweating, and the black cat is a little furnace in the sun.
It looks at him, tilting its head in confusion.
“It’s too hot for this, kitten,” he says in explanation before dropping into the water below. It is instant relief.
His birds swim to him, their wings splashing him playfully. All the while, the black cat watches curiously from the rock, key catching in the bright sunlight. It’s a strange creature, even to Jun. He doesn’t mind though. Besides all the strays, his closest friends are birds after all. He’s in no position to judge.
Jun is returning to shore one morning, his birds on either end of his boat, fed and content when he sees a figure standing on the shore. The person is tall and thin, a man by the looks of it. Definitely not the local boy who delivers the fish for him.
He sticks his long staff into the water, pushing himself towards shore faster. It’s unusual enough that it makes Jun worry that something is wrong. Someone is sick or hurt. His family, his mother.
When he gets closer, he sees it is Xu Minghao.
Jun steadies his staff, frozen in surprise. He lets his small boat cut through the water smoothly on momentum alone. He is not sure what to make of the young scholar standing among the water-smoothed rocks and the reeds. Jun is unsure he’s ever seen the other man outside of the context of the town core, visiting shops or meeting with other officials. He is not the type to spend his mornings among the bug-filled shallows of the river’s shoreline. Then again, Jun does not particularly know what kind of man Xu Minghao is. One that would trust his cat to keep him out of a bargain to wed.
“Can I help you?” Jun asks as he drifts in closer. His voice sounds too earnest among the chirping of birds and the lapping of the water. He offers a small smile.
“You’re Wen Junhui?”
“I suppose you know I’m Xu Minghao,” he says it with a sigh, not haughty or entitled. A bit tired if anything. “I don’t suppose you’ve seen my cat?” Minghao asks, stepping out of his sandals and into the water, surprising Jun again. It is odd to see someone so dignified do something so ungentlemanly. Almost childish, in the simple kind of way. “I am told that you are the only one that it seems to trust.”
Jun cannot help but let out a short high laugh, a toothy smile spreading across his face. “I don’t think many other people have given it a reason to trust them.” He says, which is true, they both know it. “But no, I haven’t seen your cat. Not today at least. He may show up for some fish with the others though.”
He points to a few cats who have already found their way to the shoreline.
Xu Minghao nods as he stands ankle deep in the river, hair pulled back into a smooth topknot, looking out of place but as beautiful as ever. He looks down to his feet in the water and the stones beneath but says nothing.
Jun understands the desire to catch the black cat. Understands how so many can’t help but pass up the opportunity to marry this man. But Jun doesn’t know him, most of them don’t. He can’t imagine marrying a stranger, no matter how lovely the curves of their lips are.
The silence stretches out like crane’s wings in the sky, and Jun is unsure how to proceed.
“Perhaps someone caught your cat,” he suggests. “Maybe someone has the key and is waiting for you at your house.”
“No, no,” the other man dismisses the idea quickly as if the possibility of someone being successful in the deal he made is absurd. “It matters not.”
Jun is unsure what to say to that. He thought that it would matter a lot. And it seems like a logical assumption to him.
“Junhui, can I ask you something else?”
He shrugs, surprised. “Sure. And you can call me Jun.”
“Why don’t you chase my cat like everyone else?” Minghao asks, looking at him carefully.
Jun feels colour rising to his cheeks on being called out so directly. He looks down into the water, unable to make eye contact. “Well, I guess I have no intention in marrying you, so trying to get the key to your house seems pointless.”
“Is there someone else?”
The question catches him off guard, and he looks up at Minghao in surprise, eyes wide. “What?”
“Do you have a lover?” Minghao asks, eyes flickering over him in assessment. “You are handsome enough and successful in your endeavours to my understanding. Is there someone else you wish to marry?”
“N-no,” Jun tells him honestly, blush deepening. Normally he’s a flirt, silly and playful. But he seems to be reduced to a flustered mess around the other man, despite the lack of his desire to marry him. Not even he is blind, immune to Minghao’s appeal.
Minghao lifts a delicate brow. “Am I not to your tastes then?”
Jun knows his blush is plain on his face. He can’t hide it and there’s no bother denying it. He isn’t used to being the one made to feel like this. He has to give a small laugh, to acknowledge his own embarrassment to being asked such a bold question. “I don’t know you,” he says with a shrug. “Marriage is for a lifetime. And I don’t care to marry a stranger, is all.”
Minghao’s eyes widen slightly, and he nods. “Oh,” he says softly. “of course. That’s perfectly reasonable. I’m sorry for asking. It’s none of my business anyway, as you’re right, you are a stranger.”
“But you are alright doing it?” Jun cannot help but ask. It has been a question on his mind since the day Minghao made the bargain with the town. Even with the knowledge that it was extremely unlikely for someone to catch the black cat and get the key to his house, there was still a slight chance. There was the risk of someone succeeding and being obligated to marry them.
“Marrying a stranger.”
The corner of Minghao’s mouth twitches, and he shakes his head. “As you said, marriage is for a lifetime. That’s plenty of time to get to know someone. They wouldn’t be a stranger forever.”
“That’s awfully romantic for someone who has done nothing but turn people down.”
Minghao looks at him again, as if reassessing Jun. Perhaps he didn’t expect to be questioned on his motives and philosophies by a fisherman on a riverbank this morning. “I suppose it is,” he manages, glancing back to the hillside, towards town. The delivery boy is making his way towards them.
“If you want to stay and wait to see if your cat shows up, you’re welcome to,” Jun tells him, pulling up to shore and stepping into the water. “it’s not the shy creature it once was.”
“No, I best be going. But it was nice talking to you,” Minghao says, a flicker of a smile on his face. He reaches a hand up to his neck, a long elegant column, grasps the pendant on the chain that hangs there.
Not a pendant. A key, Jun realizes. The same key as the one that hangs on his cat’s neck. It’s so odd that he has to force himself to look up at Minghao’s eyes, to focus on what he is saying.
“Ours is a small town,” Jun manages to tell him, “I am sure we will see each other again soon.”
“Yes,” Minghao agrees, giving him a small careful smile as he slips his sandals back on. He turns to leave. “Soon.”
Twenty minutes have not passed, the delivery boy on his way back up the riverbank when Jun spots the black cat. It trots over to him and curls itself around his ankles, key still around his neck.
“Hello, kitten,” he says. “someone is looking for you.”
After their first proper meeting, Minghao seems to pop up frequently, which isn’t that hard considering how small their town is.
The third time happens when the black cat is following Jun as he makes his way to join his mother at the market. It surprises him, how unafraid the cat is being, following him into town. Though time has passed, it is still highly sought after, hopes still held in the key that hangs around its neck.
Jun bends down when they’re at the edge of the market, a few people eyeing the cat already. “You better get out of here, kitten,” he says, reaching a hand out and gently poking the cat’s little nose. “I don’t want you chased around all day.”
The cat looks up at him with its dark eyes and then scampers off.
Not two minutes later, when Jun is dropping his staff and birds down beside his mother, does Minghao come up to him.
“Junhui,” He says, offering a small smile, joining them at the stall. “did you catch anything special today?”
He is taken by surprised by the familiarity of the greeting. He looks to his mother, who watches them both with wide curious eyes.
“You know my birds catch the fish, and well, I’m sure you’ve tried everything our river has to offer,” he replies, pushing his hat back to fall on his shoulders so he can run a hand through his hair. It is a nervous gesture and one he usually does when flirting at the local drinking houses, not because of young scholars and never in front of his mother.
He drops his hand quickly.
“Well, I’ll have whatever you think is best,” Minghao says with a nod towards Jun’s mother. “I’m sure you’re the expert,”
She smiles at him, already picking out a fish. “Oh, of course. And only the best for you. Fish is good for your brain,” she tells him, “good for your heart.” She gives him a knowing look.
“I’m afraid I remain rather unsuccessful yet in matters of the heart,” he confesses, taking the wrapped fish. “Though I hope to be lucky enough to marry one day.”
“Ah, you’re like my Junhui I think,” she says, “unlucky in love, though not for a lack of trying,”
“Mother,” Jun whispers, horrified. His continued bachelor status has been the subject of many of his mother’s complaints in the past few years. A little impatience will spoil great plans, he’d told her on more than one occasion. She always replied, “man’s schemes are inferior to those made by heaven,” then would add, “and heaven wants to me to have grandchildren.”
Minghao just laughs as Jun blushes. “I think I may be,” he admits, “though, I’m sure you don’t have to worry. Your son is a successful fisherman and handsome. Anyone would be lucky to marry him.”
“You are right,” Jun’s mother nods. “but do not discount yourself. You will find happiness in time too. It is easy to find a thousand soldiers, but it is hard to find a good general. It is the same for finding a spouse, you know.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” Minghao nods politely, the dragonfly key peeks out of his robes, still hanging on his chest. “but I best be off. It was nice seeing you again.”
Jun smiles at him, still embarrassed. Still curious about the matching key he wears. “I’ll tell your cat you said hi.”
Minghao gives him an odd look at that, but Jun doesn’t think to question it until later when he is bored sitting at the stall selling fish with his mother. He hopes Minghao doesn’t think that he has changed his mind about getting the key and marrying him as they’re technically no longer strangers. Jun hopes Minghao understood him well enough to know that he meant he wished to marry someone he knows well, is friends with first before lovers, not just familiar with.
Another time, Jun is walking home from drinking with Yanan, when he cannot help but feel he is being watched.
At first, he thinks it is all the beer and rice wine he has drunk, making everything a little fuzzy around the edges. He had been flirting with one of the local girls, Yuqi, and liked her innocent smile when she told them she had to leave before it got any later.
Still, as he walks home, the crescent moon in the sky, he cannot help but feel like he is being watched. It’s a weird feeling, and he cannot help but feel his heartbeat increasing and goosebumps rising on his bare skin.
He stops a few times and looks around the empty dirt streets. Most people are in bed, asleep. The only sounds are distant cows and the wind in the trees. He tells himself he’s being paranoid, that he shouldn’t drink so much, he knows better than to let Yanan talk him into staying out so late.
He’s almost home when he sees something out of the corner of his eye – something small and dark darting by. Jun freezes in his tracks, then turns quickly to look in the direction of whatever it was running by.
Probably just a cat, he realizes. One of his lovely babies. Cats are always out a night, hunting, exploring.
But the quick turn has him dizzy, struggling to regain a straight path forward. Jun stumbles toward the side of a shop, bracing himself against it as the world around him swims dark and blurry.
“You look like you’ve had a bit too much to drink,” a soft and familiar voice says with a teasing lilt.
Jun manages to turn to look at the man, smiles when he sees the handsome familiar face of Minghao. “You look like a dream,” he says, reaching a handout and grabbing the other man by his shoulders. He’s of a smaller build than Jun himself, leaner, less broad.
Minghao lets out a soft chuckle at that, wrapping an arm around Jun’s waist. “Let’s get you home,”
He smells good. Like jasmine and books and his cat. Jun finds it funny that he knows what Minghao’s cat smells like and cannot help but giggle. He knows more about the cat than Minghao himself. It’s weird, the whole thing.
“You’re weird,” Jun says aloud as they start down the road again. “how did you find me? Were you watching me?”
“Watching you would be weird,”
Jun turns his head to look at Minghao, frowning. “I just said you’re weird.”
“I am not.”
“Yeah, you are!” Jun shoots back. “You’re the one who has made a deal to marry whoever gets the key from around your cat’s neck! That’s not a thing normal people do.” He says, “and not people who are as good looking as you. And even though you’re good looking, you’re like a weird good looking,” Jun rambles on, giving voice to every thought that crosses his mind. “like, your ears are too pointy, and your nose too boopable!”
“Boopable?” Minghao asks, raising a brow.
Jun nods. “Yeah! Like so round and cute and….” He trails off before huffing out, “boopable! Like a cat! I want to poke and boop your nose, as I do to all the cats.”
Minghao grins at him, amused. “You sure like cats, don’t you?”
“Yeah,” Jun agrees. He is getting tired, more draped on Minghao than anything else now. He’s practically being carried. He doesn’t care. “I love cats. Don’t you love them?”
They’re in front of Jun’s house now, a small building not far from the river. He’s drunk enough not to question how Minghao has found it, only grateful to be home and able to sleep soon.
“Cats are pretty cool,” Minghao says, helping Jun inside. “but you need to sleep now.”
“Thank you, Hao,” he mumbles, leaning in and pressing a kiss to the other man’s cheek. “A friend is never known until a man has need,” He falls asleep before he can hear Minghao’s reply.
Jun is out fishing when it hits him.
But he shakes his head. It’s absurd. The entire idea of it is ridiculous. Impossible. His imagination has grown too wild. But still. None of it makes any sense unless the impossible is true.
He thinks it over again. The cat. The dragonfly key. Always showing up around town. Finding him drunk. Knowing where his house was. Minghao.
By the time he is done fishing, his birds are annoyed with him for not paying them or the task at hand enough attention. They nip at his hands when he unties them as they approach the shore. Still, his mind is elsewhere. He needs to find Minghao, to talk to him.
Jun hurries through the rest of his tasks, begging the delivery boy to take his staff and his birds along with the fish to his mother at the market. The boy agrees quickly enough, taken aback by Jun’s frantic behaviour.
He cannot help but practically run up the hillside to town. He hurries through the dirt streets that are busy with everyone going about their morning duties. He pays them no mind, heading to the nicer part of town, to Minghao’s house.
Though Jun has never been there before, he knows which one it is. When he gets there, he goes through the gate without asking, heading straight for the door.
He knocks on it twice in rapid succession.
His heartbeat is loud in his ears.
He looks at Minghao who stands in the doorway, brows drawn together in confusion. He looks as beautiful as ever. Otherworldly, Jun had thought at the wedding all those months ago. Like some blessed or magicked being among us mortals.
“Do you open the door for everyone who calls?” He teases, a flicker of a smile appearing. He cannot believe he is doing this. Either he is right, or he is an absolute fool. Jun is not sure which is worse. “Don’t you have too many admirers for that? Or have they stopped that since the bargain you made?”
Minghao shrugs, smiling back at him. “They’ve stopped. Though, I do find it annoying that the one whom I’m opening the door, for now, is you.”
Jun takes a moment to process the words. Does Minghao want him to have the key? Does he want Jun to be the one to succeed in the impossible task? They both know he’s the only one who possibly could. Or is Jun right about everything else and this is all some sort of game? He needs to ask. He needs answers.
“We both know I don’t have the key,” Jun says, licking his lips. He looks to Minghao’s long gorgeous column of a neck. He can see the chain that hangs around it, even if the pendant is tucked beneath clothing. “I don’t have the key because you have it.”
Something shifts in Minghao, and he narrows his eyes slightly at Jun. “My cat wears the key,” he says, “how else is someone supposed to be able to get the key and come inside my home? To marry me?”
“It is difficult to catch a black cat in a dark room,” Jun says carefully, watching Minghao, “especially if the cat isn't there.”
Minghao stares at him, his sharp dark eyes sparkling in the early morning light. “Dogs are dogs, but cats are people.”
Jun, despite the seriousness of the conversation, is unable to stop the sound that comes out of his mouth. It’s something between a gasp and a laugh and leaves his mouth wide in his utter disbelief and surprise and delight.
“I knew it!” he gasps, “I thought I was going crazy!”
Minghao smirks at him, amused. “How did you know?”
“No normal cat would fight loving me so much!” Jun explains, shaking his head. It all makes so much more sense now. He cannot believe the truth, but the cat not automatically loving him thing makes so much more sense now, he doesn’t have to worry about if he had done something wrong to be seen as untrustworthy. He can rest easy now knowing the truth.
“You’re ridiculous,” Minghao laughs softly, reaching inside his silks to pull out the key that hangs there. “but I like that about you.”
Jun looks at it, then up to Minghao. “You never thought I would take it?” he asks. “Not even once? You trusted me that much?”
“Yes,” Minghao says without hesitation, locking eyes with him. “but I grew tired of it, I guess. You’re too earnest. Too good. Especially when it comes to cats, apparently.”
“That’s why you started following me? Appearing? You wanted me to figure it out?”
Minghao shrugs. “I guess. I was hoping you’d figure it out. I would never come out and tell you. And after a while I wanted you to get curious. To take the key. To let yourself into my home.”
“And you would have been there?” Jun says, looking past the other man, inside. “You would manage to beat me here? Been here waiting, without the key Hoping I would figure it out?”
Jun takes a deep breath, trying to process all of this. All of Minghao. “Because there has only ever been one key. And the reason you could trust your cat so much when making the bargain is because you…you are the cat. You’re a…” he searches for the word. “a shapeshifter?”
“I mean, I’m a lot of things,” Minghao says, smirking again. “I’m a scholar too you know. And a romantic according to you.”
“And someone who can turn into a cat,” Jun says slowly, running a hand through his hair. He looks Minghao up and down, seeing the uncanny similarities. “I still can’t believe it. And this bargain! All this trouble just so you could get everyone off your back!”
“Yeah, that was a bit foolish of me, I admit,” Minghao says, “but I mean, it did work. No one was bothering me in human form anymore at least. Though, you were the only one who was kind to me as a cat.”
Jun smiles. “Of course. I love all the cats, especially you, kitten.”
The word hangs between them, two worlds colliding.
“So,” Minghao begins after a beat. He twirls the key in between his fingers. “are you going to do it? You’re the only one I’ve let have the chance, and up until now, you’ve never taken it.”
“Are you really making me do this?”
Minghao nods, biting his lip. His face is flushed, and suddenly he looks as young and inexperienced as he truly is. “Of course. I can’t just go out and be seen with you without some precedent now. You need the key to my heart.”
Jun reaches out and wraps his hand around the key, pulling gently on the chain, pulling Minghao closer and closer until they’re face to face. Minghao’s breath is hot on his skin, and he is looking at him with wide, searching eyes that sparkle in some unnatural way. Jun doesn’t mind. In fact, he kind of likes it.
“Love the house, love the cat,” Jun whispers before pressing their lips together in the first of many kisses.
He considers how Minghao is right about marriage: it is for a lifetime and that’s plenty of time to get to know someone and all their secrets. And Jun has just learned one of Minghao’s secrets, and well, they won’t be strangers forever. And he has questioned fate before and now, after the impossibilities, he isn't about to fight this.