There are things that Shen Jiu has, after he escaped from the beast, decided that he’d never do again: he’d never again join a sect, never again teach, and most importantly: he’d never take a disciple under his wing again.
Of course, that idea did not account for the possibility of ever finding another fox spirit, and it definitely did not account for him bumping into a pitiful, small little cub in the middle of Yiling.
It happened too fast for him to even remember the details, but the gist of the situation is something like this: as he travelled to Gusu, where there had been reports of a fox sanctuary, he decided to buy some food. In between getting lost after eating and walking around trying to find a talisman shop, he ended up entering an alleyway, where to his surprise he saw a small cub. The poor thing was bleeding, already bitten and harmed by the stray dogs that were close by. So, against his own best judgements and trying to supress the voice that whispered that this had nothing to do with him, he decided to pick up and heal the little one. He’d find its parents and let it go later, wouldn’t he?
Shen Jiu brought the cub to the inn where he had eaten early, only stopping on the way to buy medicine. He of course could heal the fox if he needed to, but it was something too intimate to do with a child he didn’t know, so he decided against it. He’d heal it later if the medicines weren’t enough.
Snapping himself out of his thoughts, he picked up one of the vials and dabbed it into the bloodied orange tail. The extremities were white, but had been stained a pale pink by the injuries. Shen Jiu also noticed that the fur had been missing some tuffs of hair, and sighed as he tried his best to dress the injuries.
In between the cleaning and dressing of the wounds, the little fox seemed to wake up, large grey eyes looking directly at Shen Jiu with curiosity. Surprisingly, the cub had not tried to attack him yet, instead only studying his expressions.
“You passed out on an alley after you were bitten by dogs, I found you and used some medicine so you wouldn’t catch an infection” he explained quickly. The little fox nodded, and he quickly realized that, due to exhaustion and blood loss, it could not turn into its human form.
“Where are your parents?” He asked, with the gentlest voice he could possibly give, trying not to scare the little fox even further. Immediately, the cub seemed to pale, and after a few seconds, gave its answer through a single shake of its head: it had none.
This was bad. This was terrible. He had signed up to heal the child, not to take care of it.
He could, of course, just leave it there and go on his merry way, but the part of himself that had once been in the little fox’s place - the too humane, too sentimental, too invested in the life of a fox he didn’t know part of himself - refused to, and pleaded him to care for the weak, wide eyed fox in front of him.
“You’re coming with me from now on” he said, and waited for the little one to follow, trying to ignore the still sane part of his brain that screamed repressed memories of a human child with the same shining eyes as the one gingerly raising from the bed.
The first year the little cub - Wei Ying, according to what the fox remembers - spent with him, he was still shy, spending most of the time curled up somewhere, only coming near Shen Jiu to eat and drink. It was almost as if the cub was trying to make his presence as less invasive as he possibly could out of fear that Shen Jiu would get mad and throw him away, which was all in all a valid fear: Shen Jiu had yelled at disciples and hit them with the ruler for less, although he never outright sent them away. He had learnt more or less to be patient with the little demons, otherwise Yue Qingyuan would have reason to come and talk to him about it. But this is not the same Shen Jiu as before, nor is Wei Ying one of disciples; he has none.
It takes Shen Jiu assuring him more than a couple of times that he won’t leave him (without a reason) for the cub to begin to open up and stop being so cautious around him. He still flinches when Shen Jiu tries to raise his voice, but he changes into his human form more often, even daring to talk sometimes.
It is, surprisingly, a welcome change. Shen Jiu doesn’t necessarily enjoy talking to others, but a-Ying seemed so uncomfortable that he almost sighs out of relief once he begins to be more like himself.
Raising a fox cub is, in theory, a great job: It’s a way to make sure the population keeps going by taking care of the vulnerable infants, and it’s a way to get unconditional love from the little one you raised. In practice, raising a fox spirit is hell.
The problem itself is not even with Wei Ying: the little cub is curious and energetic (sometimes resembling too much a certain someone) but he’s not annoying or hyperactive, and usually listens to Shen Jiu once he strictly tells him no; the problem is, however, with the ridiculous amount of time it takes for a fox spirit to mature and be able to live completely by themselves. Shen Jiu has been with the little one for over one hundred years and the little thing barely looks older than when he found him.
“Jiu-ge” Wei Ying calls him, the way that he had taught him to -even now, over three hundred years since he had left that life behind, he’d not let anyone call him shizun, not anymore- “Why can’t we talk to humans? They seem interesting”
Shen Jiu’s breath hitches, and for one second he almost lashes at the kid, but then he quickly reminds himself that A-Ying is, at the end of the day, a curious and innocent child, one that has barely talked to humans, and one that hasn’t been harmed by them yet. He can’t possibly understand the harms that becoming closer to humans will bring, and it’s Shen Jiu’s duty to explain to him.
“The humans from this place grow up quickly and die young, a-Ying. They’re not like us; they will not stay with you for a long time. I don’t want you to end up attached to one only to lose them after some time goes by.” he ends up replying. When Wei Ying is old enough to understand things like anger and malice, he’ll teach him about the dangers of humans. But for now, this should be enough to keep him from asking to meet humans again.
The little cub thinks about his answer, nods his head, then never asks about humans for the next two hundred years.
Albeit taking care of a cub is a lot of work, there is good in it too. Wei Ying proves himself to be hardworking, and tries his best to help Shen Jiu around. It’s been a short while since they moved away from Gusu, now staying in Yiling definitively. Fox hunting and breeding is strictly prohibited around these areas, so he can feel relaxed enough to let the cub run errands and buy him supplies. Surprisingly, the fox is also a decent cook, if Shen Jiu locks up the spice before asking him to make him something (he had let Wei Ying make spicy congee once, and the broth had been so spicy that he couldn’t feel his mouth for the next day or so.)
A-Ying is also surprisingly smart, and knows to leave him alone once he starts working. He will, though, call Shen Jiu if he spends too much time working and forgets to take care of himself, something that happens far too often for Shen Jiu to fault the child for it.
Of course, although the help is welcome most times, it isn’t always that he’s working; sometimes he’s healing the ends of his tails, trying to make them grow a little more. It doesn’t always work, and sometimes he’s left bitter and full of hatred for the one who made him this way, and also for himself. Had he not mingled with humans, foolish believing they weren’t as bad as Wu Yanzi had told him (the only valuable advice his old teacher had left, and even then he had been too naive to follow it) he wouldn’t have met the little beast.
His thoughts are interrupted by the sound of steps. A-Ying came back home, and now walked in on him, walked in on his vulnerable, damaged self, which he had tried so desperately to keep hidden from the child’s sight before.
“Jiu-ge” the cub started, seemingly scared by the face he must have been putting on, he notices “I didn't want to interrupt your work, but it’s been hours and you haven’t eaten anything. I made some soup, and I was wondering if I could serve you some?”
He blinks, fully expecting the child to question what he’s doing, but Wei Ying seemed to sense his discomfort. It shouldn’t be such a surprise to Shen Jiu; It’s easy for anyone to read the expression on his face, especially Wei Ying, who had become used to him by now. But it’s perhaps the idea that Wei Ying outright tried to ignore the situation, or the idea that the cub was considerate of his invisible boundaries, that made him quit his snarl and calm himself.
“Can you put some on a bowl and bring it to me, A-Ying?” He asked, and watched as the child immediately smiled, nodding and running to grab the food.
Whether one day he would trust Wei Ying with the secrets of the past was something he didn’t have the answer to yet, but he now knew that his judgement wasn’t completely flawed.