Art by Shareen Mann.
From the author: Hēi Māo starts settling in to his new home, and he has a plan. - Apologies for the inaccurate pinyin on much of this. The Curious Fictions text editor does not tolerate fourth tone (ie: ǒ, ǎ, or ǐ).
Hēi Māo looked around his witch's room, surprised how comfortable he felt here. The walk up to the family's apartment above the shop felt oddly like coming home. It was bright and open, welcoming. Her room with its light pink walls and high-lofted bed in the corner had a similar feel. She had some sort of craft space under the bed, with a wall-mounted desk extending in both directions from the corner. A sewing machine sat on one end, with tidy folded pieces of fabric beside it. She had a computer and some textbooks on the other section of the desk.
"Until we can screen you for illness, or go through the purification of a binding, you're going to need to stay up in my room," she explained, as if he could understand. A regular cat wouldn't, of course, and he wasn't sure how much of this was just Brigitte's way, and how much was her subconscious realizing he wasn't an ordinary cat.
He purred, butting his head against the bottom of her chin.
"Look," she said, carrying him toward her desk. "You have your own special tree right here." She gestured to a floor-to-ceiling cat playhouse beside the desk, not far from the computer. The colors of carpet and fabric complemented the room and the curtains.
He'd never gotten to play with cat toys or scratching posts; his father didn't believe in indulging his cat side. It looked new, but smelt like it belonged here. He watched, attentive as she patted each level, pointing out the perches and nice things to rub against. This was clearly not some random item purchased at a pet supply store. It was either made to order, or designed and made by his witch herself. The possibility that she'd put this kind of thought into her preparations for her familiar made his breath catch in awe. He wasn't merely an animal used to boost and focus her magic. Already, she valued him far more than his father ever had.
"And here you have a kitty hammock." A net of pink denim, a perfect match for her pants from the other day, hung over the edge of the desk. "I was thinking it might be a good place to nap while I do my homework." She leaned forward and encouraged him to climb onto one of the observation platforms.
The carpeting was soft under his paws. He tentatively batted at one of the walls, engaging his claws briefly. They sank in and caught nicely, satisfying his urge to grab and yank things. He peeked into a large tube and saw a stuffed toy dangling from the ceiling. It made a sweet soft jingling sound when he struck it.
"Oh, yeah," she said, watching him. "We can switch the toys out if you don't like any of them, or if you want to move them around."
He glanced at her over his shoulder then continued his investigation of the structure he was now certain she'd made.
"You enjoy yourself," she said, sounding pleased. "I really want to spend some time with you, but I have to finish my schoolwork first." He heard her rummaging in her backpack. "Physics was easy today, so I'll start with that…"
While she worked her way through the day's assignments, he finished his exploration, eventually moving into the sling. It was quite comfortable, supporting his body while allowing him to droop in the boneless way cats could. He could already tell this would be the perfect spot to be near her while she studied. Every so often she'd look up and smile at him, giving him gentle pats and praise each time. He could see this developing into a nice routine for them.
"You've been so good and patient," Brigitte said, reaching out to run a hand along his side. "Just one class left. It's not my best subject, so I hope you can bear with me." She'd started Mandarin last year. Part of her regretted not taking Italian or German like her friends Ruhul and Aalia. At least they shared the same alphabet as French. But when it was time to pick classes, Mandarin was a new option. Though her mother had never pushed her to connect with her heritage, she felt compelled. After all, Ruhul spoke Arabic at home, and Aalia spoke Antillean Creole with her family.
Pulling out a hanzi grid, she slowly and carefully drew her characters for the day, focusing on putting down each line and dot in order. Her handwriting was decent, but her pronunciation was hideous. She was best at differentiating the tones if people spoke slowly, but most of the time it was a jumbled mess.
"Wo... shì... fa guó... rén," she said slowly, her finger under the characters on the page. While she was repeating this week's phrases for memorization, Hēi Māo leaned over, gracefully spilling out of his hammock onto her desk. He padded over and looked down at the page.
"Ni hao, Hēi Māo," she said happily. "Do you speak Mandarin?"
In response, he reached out and pressed his paw on the page, dragging it away from her. She would have assumed he was bored and playing with it, but he'd turned it so he could look at it right way up instead of sideways. His head tilted, and he let out a long rolling, "Miaowww."
"I know," she agreed. "It's not very impressive, but it's only my second year. And I'm not the worst in the class."
"Rrrrrrr." A low hum came from the back of his throat, like he was musing aloud. He reached out again and pulled her hanzi grid toward him. He tapped just off to the side of one row.
"You like that one?" she asked, grinning at him. "You should. It means cat."
He tapped it again, more firmly, and looked at her.
"Māo?" she asked.
His tail swished gently as he stared at her for a moment. He tapped next to another character, the masculine form of 'you.'
"Ni," she said, more puzzled.
He returned to the phrase sheet and put both paws down on one sentence, only letting one character show between them.
"Shì." To be. "You are," she translated. "You are what?" There was no way this was an accident. The stray cat she was hoping to become her familiar could read simplified Mandarin characters as easily as he seemed to understand French.
"Meh," he called her to attention, the next character between his front paws.
"Wo," she said obediently. "Ni shì wo… you are me?"
He let out a delicate sniff as he scanned the pages, finally settling on the possessive article that turned 'me' into 'my.' Once she'd said it, he wasted no time returning to the first character.
"Māo," she said, noticing that he'd sat down, clearly done. "Ni shì wo de māo. You are my cat!" She spoke aloud as she translated, gasping as the meaning hit once the words were out of her mouth. He hadn't made it a question, but a statement. She clutched at the front over her shirt, over her heart. "You're my cat?" she asked quietly, her eyes starting to sting. "Really?"
He took a few steps closer so he could sit up and put his front paws on her shoulder. He rubbed his jaw along hers, as if clear up any confusion.
Brigitte is a teen witch who is desperately ready to find her familiar. Jacque was an internationally-known teen model, but he's spent the last four months living as a stray cat on the streets of Paris. What could possibly happen when these two cross paths?
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