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Holding Wonder Like a Cup

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Spring, Two Years After Jan Arrives

“Honestly, Jan,” Tadeusz says, rubbing the back of his head with one hand, “I can set as many traps as you want me to, and get the carpenters to make as many cupboards as they can, but the plain fact o’ the matter is, we need cats if we want the mice kept down. ‘Tisn’t just the larder, either; Andrzej down t’stables, he’s going half mad with mice in the grain.”

“I hear you,” Jan sighs, looking down at the much-nibbled piece of dried meat on the table between them.

“Never heard of a keep ‘thout cats before,” Tadeusz adds.

“Nor had I, before I came here,” Jan admits. “I am told it is because cats do not like Witchers, and will not remain in their presence. Past attempts have all resulted in the cats fleeing the keep.”

“Eh!” says Tadeusz, frowning, and then, slowly, “Did they try grown cats, belike, or kittens?”

“Grown cats, I believe,” Jan says.

“Well, mayhap that’s our answer. T’next time one o’ us goes down mountain, ask about for a cat as has just littered, and take ‘em afore their eyes open. ‘Tis how my missus used to tame the barn cat’s kittens, and that barn cat was feral as any mountain lion. Kits grew up as tame as tame, though.”

“Well,” Jan says, “I suppose there isn’t any harm in trying.”

*

Getting ahold of a few litters of still-blind kittens isn’t terribly difficult, though bringing them up the Trail is an interesting challenge. Caring for them isn’t too hard either; the servants’ children are delighted to take on the responsibility of feeding and tending the little creatures, and the dairymaids are more than happy to set aside milk for the animals which might, with luck, keep them from having to deal with mice scurrying about underfoot and getting into the cheese pantry. Once the kittens are weaned and past the clumsy stage, Jan parcels them out: half a dozen to the stables, as many to the kitchens, three for the dairy, several for the cellars and the pantry and the larder. They won’t stay there, as like as not, but it’s worth trying. The young animals, kits of barn cats all, from lines of avid mousers, react to the sight and smell of their prey with eager chirps and lashing tails, and though it takes them a little while to figure out the best methods of hunting without any older cats to demonstrate, they learn quickly. In a few months, every servant in the keep has gotten used to seeing cats trotting out of various storerooms or out from under cupboards, dead mice held proudly in their mouths, and the cats are always rewarded with pettings and scritches and praise that makes them hold their tails high.

They mostly avoid the Witchers, though. Still, Jan is content enough: they don’t flee the Witchers, and are content to remain inside the keep instead of escaping down the Trail or into the wilderness, and they’re definitely making a dent in the number of mice within Kaer Morhen’s walls. He gives Tadeusz a small bonus for thinking of a way to acquire cats who won’t bolt as soon as they see Witchers, and raises a toast with the rest of the servants to their new feline assistants, and goes on with his life, pleased to have one problem, at least, fairly thoroughly dealt with.

The years roll on.

Early Winter, Two Years After Jaskier Arrives

Sticks-His-Nose-In-The-Cream, Nosy to his littermates and friends, is the seventh generation of his line to live in the Cold Stone Halls, and can track his ancestry back to Drinks-Mouse-Blood herself, the queen who rules the place of milk and cheese. Of course, most cats in the Cold Stone Halls are related to Drinks-Mouse-Blood somehow, but he’s of the line of her very first litter, which is reason enough to be proud; not that any cat really needs a reason to be proud.

He’s also the boldest of his generation, a title he’s earned many times over in his eight short months of life so far, and has explored almost every part of the Cold Stone Halls, from the high walls to the deep food-storage caves, and brought his tales back to his clowder with tail held high and pride in every step. But other cats have explored the Cold Stone Halls before - indeed, Drinks-Mouse-Blood was the first to do so, years ago, and still can be induced to tell the stories of her youthful adventures, sometimes, at night when the clowder is all crowded onto the warm stones in front of the fire. She’s quite old now, is Drinks-Mouse-Blood, but she’s still undisputed queen of all she surveys.

If Nosy wants to earn a really good name, a reputation that will truly impress the queens and make his tale one that resonates down the generations, he’s going to have to do something more dramatic than just exploring.

And he knows exactly what that’s going to be.

Drinks-Mouse-Blood and her generation, those who are left of them, are very wary of the Predator Two-Legs, the ones with eyes like cats and a smell that screams danger to every cat in the Cold Stone Halls. They’ve taught their kittens to be just as cautious, and every cat knows to hide from the Predator Two-Legs, to slink out of their way and make themselves scarce as only cats can. The regular Two-Legs are just fine; indeed, they are all very kind to the cats, praising them and giving them treats and petting them anytime a cat deigns to sit upon their laps. Every cat in the Cold Stone Halls is quite fond of the regular Two-Legs, Nosy included.

But to approach a Predator Two-Legs...that would earn him quite a name. Maybe one as impressive as Leaps-Through-Flames, who saved four kittens from a stable fire, or Killed-the-Rat-King, or Rides-Goats-Up-Walls.

Nosy picks his target very carefully. He certainly isn’t going to dare the big white Predator Two-Legs, the one who is the leader of the entire clowder and who smells even fiercer and more dangerous than all the others. And he considers and discards all the ones who like to play-fight with each other in the big cave, because if they try to play-fight with him he’ll be crushed like a bug. That narrows down the options considerably: most of the Predator Two-Legs like to play-fight.

But there’s one who sits at the very end of one long wooden board, and who doesn’t play-fight at all that Nosy’s ever seen, and who is always very gentle with the colorful Two-Legs who is brave enough to snuggle the White Predator Two-Legs and the one the cats have dubbed Smells-Of-Magic. He’s gentle with the Two-Leg kitten Likes-Geese, too, which can only be a good sign. And he almost never smells of anger or threat.

Also, conveniently, he spends part of every day in the cave where the colorful Two-Legs, Sings-A-Lot, sits and scratches at things with a feather, and it’s just the two of them. Predator Two-Legs are rarely alone; finding one who only has one companion, and that one not a predator at all, is rare and difficult.

Nosy starts hiding in a corner of Sings-A-Lot’s cave before Sings-A-Lot and the quiet Predator Two-Legs get there, and watches them carefully for several days. Sings-A-Lot sometimes talks to the quiet Predator, who Nosy decides to call Quiet-Thunder for the low rumble of his voice, but mostly Sings-A-Lot scratches with his feather and sings a little and scratches some more, or plucks at the strings on his noise-making wooden thing, and Quiet-Thunder sits on the warm stone in front of the fire and makes tiny wood scraps with a metal claw, and replies whenever Sings-A-Lot needs him to, but is otherwise silent.

The metal claw is a little worrying, but all the Predator Two-Legs have metal claws, and Nosy doesn’t intend to get close if it looks like Quiet-Thunder might use it on him.

The first thing Nosy tries is very carefully slinking out of his hiding place, across the room from Quiet-Thunder, and hunkering down just barely in the Predator Two-Legs’ line of sight. Quiet-Thunder sees him, and goes still. He says something to Sings-A-Lot, who looks up from his feather and makes coaxing noises at Nosy. Nosy, never one to turn down a good scritching, goes over and rubs against Sings-A-Lot’s legs, and Sings-A-Lot scratches him behind the ears, and Nosy purrs for a while.

Then that’s quite enough for one day, and he streaks out of the cave and down the hall.

The next day, though, he slinks out of hiding again, and Quiet-Thunder makes the same rumbling noise as he did the first time. Maybe it’s Sings-A-Lot’s name, in Two-Legs speak. Sings-A-Lot looks up and makes coaxing noises again, and Nosy goes over and purrs for him for a few minutes, and then slinks between Sings-A-Lot’s legs and hunkers down under his chair, watching Quiet-Thunder.

Quiet-Thunder says something, and Sings-A-Lot replies, and they talk for a while. And then Quiet-Thunder puts down his metal claw and holds out a hand and makes coaxing noises like Sings-A-Lot did, but not very well. He’s clearly never done it before. Nosy sniffs the air, and can’t smell any threat beyond the baseline danger scent that all Predator Two-Legs have. He slinks closer. Quiet-Thunder makes coaxing noises again. Nosy hunkers down, almost flat to the ground, and edges just close enough to sniff Quiet-Thunder’s paw.

He smells like wood and metal, mostly, under the danger smell. He also holds very, very still, and says something to Sings-A-Lot in a very quiet whisper.

Nosy’s nerve breaks, and he flees the room at a sprint.

But he’s going to earn that name. He goes back the next day, and lets Sings-A-Lot pet him, and then when Quiet-Thunder offers a hand and makes coaxing noises, he approaches, one wary step at a time. Quiet-Thunder holds still as Nosy sniffs his paw - still wood and metal and danger - and says something very quietly to Sings-A-Lot. Sings-A-Lot replies, just as softly.

Nosy takes his courage in his teeth, and bumps his head against Quiet-Thunder’s paw.

Quiet-Thunder doesn’t do anything at all. Nosy bumps him again. Sings-A-Lot says something, then, and Quiet-Thunder very, very gently turns his paw and runs one finger over Nosy’s head. The touch is so soft it barely dents Nosy’s fur.

Nosy mrrps at him, and bumps his head against Quiet-Thunder’s paw again. Quiet-Thunder repeats the caress, just as softly. Nosy turns to let Quiet-Thunder pet his back, and Quiet-Thunder strokes a paw down Nosy’s spine so gently Nosy can barely feel it.

Nosy purrs.

*

“Ye gods,” Aubry whispers, as the little black-and-white cat rumbles a purr all out of proportion to its size. Jaskier bites a knuckle to muffle a tiny squeak of glee. “It’s so soft.”

“You can pet a little more firmly,” Jaskier suggests around his finger.

Aubry strokes the cat again, hand trembling. The cat curls around and bumps its head against Aubry’s hand, nudging into his fingers. Aubry tentatively curls them, letting the cat direct him, and ends up scritching very gently behind its ear. The cat leans into the caress hard, purring even more loudly.

“That’s a good noise, right?” Aubry murmurs.

“Very good,” Jaskier confirms. “Means it likes it. Try under its chin; a lot of cats like that.”

Aubry ventures to scratch under the cat’s chin. The cat flops down on its side, stretching out its neck to give him more scratching area, and continues purring. Aubry scritches under its chin for a while, then strokes a hand over its side, pupils blown wide with amazement. “I think I may be the first Witcher to ever pet a cat,” he says quietly, voice full of an emotion Jaskier thinks might be wonder.

Mrrrp,” says the cat, eeling around to nudge its head against Aubry’s hand again. Aubry obediently returns to scritching it behind the ears. The cat contents itself with that for a little while, and then, very daintily, steps forward onto Aubry’s lap and curls up in the hollow of his crossed legs.

“What do I do?” Aubry hisses, staring down at the puff of fur in bewildered joy.

“Pet it,” Jaskier replies, so overcome with the sheer adorability of the scene that he can barely speak. Aubry strokes a hand over the ball of fluff - his hand nearly covers it, in fact - and the cat purrs even more loudly.

“I hope you don’t want to go anywhere for a while,” Aubry says after a minute or so. “I - I think it’s asleep.”

“Disturbing a sleeping cat is a truly heinous act,” Jaskier says solemnly. “I have no intention of going anywhere this afternoon, not until suppertime.” He goes back to his composing, but he keeps his chair turned just enough that he can watch Aubry as the big Witcher stares down, in wonder and growing delight, at the black-and-white cat purring away contentedly beneath his hand.

*

Befriends-Predators (still Nosy to his friends) sires many kittens, and all of them are taught that while the Predator Two-Legs smell dreadful, they give the best scritches of all.

And it’s one of his kits who earns the name Fears-Nothing when she dares to sit in the lap of the White Predator himself, and proves that he, too, has gentle paws that stroke so softly over a brave cat’s fur.