chapter two: the bones of my kingdom

They farther north they ventured the colder it was. Five days along and it was nearly unbearable. Shifu sat on the perch next to the driver wrapped in cloaks three deep, maintaining a state of meditation more to conserve heat than out of desire for quietude. The driver, a monkey named Ling who barely spoke, only stopped shivering when Shifu put coals from a campfire into a copper pot, wrapped it in a blanket, and told the driver to set it on his lap.

The Princess rarely ventured out of the cabin unless a camp fire was fully ablaze. The cold seemed injurous to her and she sought to avoid it whenever possible. She spent the majority of her time wrapped in a nest of silk blankets, reading poetry by candlelight and smoking her clove filled cigarettes. Sometimes, when Shifu peeked back at her through the slim window behind the perch, she sat with with four of five little wooden boxes open around her, carefully arranging trinkets and baubles in each according to some order Shifu had not managed to divine. She mostly slept during the morning and afternoon, wrapped softly in her own tail.

She was, to Shifu's surprise, a deeply sullen person. She had been oddly sardonic at the Jade Palace, had spoken and laughed, but it seemed that was the limit of the energy she could muster. Shifu could see now the wistful, somber soul beneath the facade. She ate sparsely and without tasting Po's dumplings and noodles in which she'd expressed such an interest.

When they stopped to camp for the night and Ling had prodded the fire to an acceptable level she would step out of the carriage trailing silks and furs, and sit by the fire until the warmth seemed to replenish her. She would eat, say a few polite words to Ling and Shifu, then retreat back to her carriage for the night.

In the rare times he saw her in the light of day he realized she was older than he'd first thought, in her mid thirties perhaps. Upon first seeing her in the candlelit cabin Shifu had placed her at around twenty two. But by the light of the sun the age, and sadness, in her face was clear. She seemed to have had the life pressed out of her by some weighty force in her heart. At night she would stare into the fire, her mind quite elsewhere, somewhere hopeless. Shifu found himself more concerned for her by the day, but did not engage the subject. His job was to protect the carriage from threat and this he did, keeping his attention on the horizon.

He did occasionally attempt to converse with her, when they had camped for the evening and she had replenished herself by the fire. She was usually polite but unresponsive, as distant as her imperial bearing called for. One evening, however, she stepped out of the carriage looking particularly dreadful, and puffy, as though she had been weeping. She produced from beneath her blankets a bottle of expensive sorghum wine and a tea cup made of wafer thin ceramic. She poured some for herself and threw it back hard and in one go, like a young man.

That bad? Shifu wanted to ask.

A burn that would have made Shifu's eyes water and throat shut only caused her a shudder. She sighed, and then seemed to remember herself, offering the bottle to Shifu.

"No, thank you," Shifu said. She offered it to Ling, who accepted gratefully.

"Good evening, My Lady," Shifu said.

"And to you," she replied. She watched the fire and the light in her eyes started to fade.

Suddenly Shifu couldn't take it. Another night of this awful malaise was too much for him. This voyage had been unbearably depressing. She'd had a drink, perhaps he could get her to speak, or laugh, or anything other than sink back into her emotional black hole.

"Princess, if I may be so bold..."

She looked at him, startled out of her reverie. "Yes?'

"I am curious. You are a Fennec, are you not?"

Her eyebrows raised slightly. "Yes. Not many in this part of the world know that name. I cannot tell you how many times I have been presented as Princess to visiting ambassadors, only to overhead whispers of 'Yes, but what IS she? I think she is some sort of rabbit!"

He chuckled.

"I was once mistaken for a deer. A deer!"

"It must have been the hooves, My Lady."

She snickered. "They do give it away, don't they? The horns as well."

Shifu smiled. "I cannot help but be curious, Princess-"

"How a Fennec became a Princess of the Forbidden City?"

"...yes."

She was quiet for a moment before she spoke. There was a languorous way about her that, had she had more energy, would have been quite graceful. When she was warmed enough to loosen her blankets the fire shone on a long, exquisite neck Shifu had to remind himself to look away from.

"I was born in a desert," she began. "Ah, how I miss the sun!" she cried achingly. "It spilled such life into the land by day that by night our underground homes were warm the whole night through. It was such a large sun that by dusk it lit the entire sky with fire, purple and red and yellow. It was a great ripe fruit, dripping upon us from the heavens." She tilted her delicate chin to the sky, closing her eyes with pleasure at the memory. Shifu felt a wave of heat flutter though his bones, watching her.

"I am a noble of the Fennec line. We are desert people, but what many do not know is that we Fennec are related, quite closely, with the Huli Jing line of foxes of the Forbidden City. We are the same blood. Over countless centuries our peoples have wandered up through Africa, through the Middle Kingdoms, and eventually east into China, where the Huli Jing foxes currently hold their empire.

"I was born a princess to the king of the Saharan Fennec. When I was five, or perhaps six, our dunes became overrun with Hyena. No one knew from where they had come, or why, only that masses of them traveled from the south into our lands.

"We had no warning, no time to prepare. They ravaged and destroyed all that they saw. Our beautiful kingdom was torn apart. Hyena spare nothing, leave no one. They left the bones of my kingdom to bleach in the sun." She paused here, her eyes flashing for a moment with the light of the fire.

"At the time we were overrun my father was hosting in his home three Huli Jing scholars, visiting from China. When the Hyena attacked he sent me away with them, to keep me safe. I believe I am the only one of my line left. Perhaps some of my people still live in homes beneath the dunes, some relatives of mine. I will never know.

"Because I was of noble blood the scholars found a home for me with noble family that had strong relations to the monarchy. My younger sister MeiLan, a true Huli Jing, was married to the Emperor. And this is how a desert Fennec became part of the Forbidden City."

She leaned towards the fire, gathering her blankets once more around her shoulders, pinching them at the neck. He glanced at Ling, who leaned against a stump, cleaning his fingernails with the tip of a dagger, entirely uninterested in the Princess's tale. Something about this disturbed Shifu on a very deep level, for a reason he could not name. Ling felt the weight of Shifu's gaze and raised his eyes to meet it. Something electric and sour passed between them. Ling quickly looked away. Shifu was left with the shadow of that sour feeling. It crawled beneath his skin.

The Princess rose from the fire. The telling of the story left her spent. "I am tired and I think I shall sleep now. Good night, Shifu."

"Sleep well, Princess."

Ling rose, sheathing his dagger, to help the Princess into the carriage. She thanked him and closed the door behind her as Ling bowed. He went back to his stump, drew his dagger again, and started to whittle away at a little piece of wood. He looked at Shifu in a way that made the master's blood run cold. He met Ling's eyes, projecting his chi at the monkey. Ling blinked, shivered suddenly, and put the dagger down. He clung to his coat as though a brittle breeze had washed over him, not knowing it was Shifu's chi he felt. The monkey bowed to Shifu and announced that he too was off to bed. He fed the horses, gathered his things, and crawled into the small one-man tent by the fire.

Shifu waited until he sensed Ling was asleep, and then waited longer. He meditated, tried in vain to reach through the heavens to Master Oogway. To Tai Lung. To the people he had loved most in the world who had left him. It was a clear night, so he meditated upon the stars.

Shapes played out in the warp and weft of the milky way. A strong sweet girl raising her arms to her great fruit of a sun... a frail woman who danced through the snow, her ribbons and robes flying behind her, caught in a wind, a gust, a tempest that pushed her, tumbling faster now, faster, tumbling over the edge of a bright snowy cliff-

Shifu snapped away from his vision, hair standing on end. "Master Oogway-?" he asked softly into the night.

There was no reply. The night was silent and bare as a bone left to bleach in the sun.

A tiny light flickered behind the delicate slats of the Princess's carriage window. She was still awake, likely reading. Shifu rose and tapped lightly on door. There was a shifting shuffle in the cabin. The curtain moved aside a tiny bit to let the Princess peek out, and then the door opened, just a crack. She was so wrapped in blankets that only her eyes and little nose were visible.

"Yes?" she asked.

Shifu bowed. "My Lady, a word?"

"Of course," she said, pushing the door wide enough for Shifu to enter. As he came in she pushed herself into a corner, as far away from the open door as possible, as though the cold had gnarled hands to throttle her. Shifu shut the door behind him and sat.

"Would you like a blanket?" she asked.

"What?"

"Another layer?" she held a quilt out to him.

"No Princess, I am fine."

She nodded and settled back into her mound of cushions. "I don't know how you bear it."

He chuckled. "We shining cats are fat and thick blooded, lots of fur. You aren't made for this weather. I can only imagine how the cold must come in through your ears."

A hint of a smile. "It comes in everywhere it can."

He smiled back.

"So," she said, "You wanted a word?"

You could tell me why we're out here, he wanted to say. What this treasure is that the Empress sends to the Mongols. Why you're dragging yourself through frozen wastes that could kill you, and why I am along for the ride.

Instead, he asked, "Do you have any games?"

She blinked. "Games?"

"Yes, a game. Any game would do."

She hesitated, and something remarkable happened. The vulnerability and sorrow left her face, and she was suddenly the cool, analytical Princess he had met five days ago. She said nothing, but the small cabin filled with the ice of her suspicion.

"I ask only for a bit of your company, Princess. I, who am beneath your station, was too bold. Forgive me." He stood, bowed. "I shall remove myself from your presence." He made a move to leave the cabin.

"No! I - " she reached out to him. "I have mah-jong. Just...please...don't open the door."

000

They played mah-jong in silence until she relaxed. The more she relaxed the less the cold seemed to bother her. She gradually shed layer after layer of covering, until she only had one thin blanket around her slight shoulders and powder blue silk hanfu.

"Your move, Princess."

"You may call me Meihui," she said, studying the board.

He smiled at this unexpected trust. "Your move, Meihui."

Shifu studied her. She was such a little thing, so dainty and alien. With such great ears! A single heavy jade dragon curled it's way through six wide piercings. It was the largest earring he had ever seen. He could not remember ever meeting someone smaller than he was who also had bigger ears!

He enjoyed watching her think about the game. Her eyes were clever, darting, analytical, and her moves were skilled. She smoked her sweet, slow burning clove cigarettes, the smoke curling above her like a ghostly hand.

Behind her there was a glass encased nook which contained four huge leather tomes, several smaller books of poetry, and a well used calligraphy set. Her erhu hung horizontally near the ceiling. The small wooden boxes in which she had been arranging trinkets were stacked on the table, shoved in a corner. Shifu longed to ask after those in particular but he did not.

He relaxed quite nicely into the rhythm of the evening. Meihui, when occupied, seemed to release some of her oppressive sadness. It left behind a lovely warmth which calmed Shifu in turn, letting him forget momentarily his puzzlement at their situation. He settled into the game, putting aside his concerns, enjoying the lovely powdery scent and warmth of the cabin. The Kung Fu Master plays Mah-Jong with the Princess, he thought. It should be the title of a poem.

When morning began to glimmer over the horizon she stretched her arms with their delicate wrists, straightened her back and long neck, lifting her sweet face to the sun. She gave a little yawn. "I'm afraid I grow tried now, Master Shifu. Morning has come. I should rest."

"Of course, My Lady." Shifu stood and bowed. "I thank you for your company, and the game."

She smiled, but it didn't reach her eyes, which had begun to take on their usual misty, despondent quality. With a sinking feeling Shifu realized she was going back into that dark, hopeless place. Don't, he wanted to cry out. Don't let it claim you like that. Fight!

She looked up at him, and then away, her eyes nearly unbearable for their sadness. "It...it is a shame." she said softly at the floor.

"What is, Meihui?"

She sighed helplessly, pulling the thicker coverings on top of her, over her head. "Nothing important. Goodnight, Venerable One."

Shifu frowned, staying a moment to let her burrow down into her blankets before he opened the door.

000

Shifu sighed thinking of her and stirred the coals on the campfire with a stick. It had perhaps been a mistake to stay awake the whole night. He'd started noticing the toll all-nighters took on him when he crept into his forties. He'd have thought he would have learned his lesson by now.

The campsite was quiet and Ling was gone, likely in the woods relieving himself. Shifu decided to get started tacking up the horses. The daylight hours were so few and there was no time to waste. He stretched, gathering the tackle from the sliding compartment beneath the carriage, and carried it over to the tree the where the horses were hitched.

The horses were gone.

Perhaps Ling had led them to water? Shifu dropped the pile of tackle and saw something that nearly knocked the breath from his chest. The rope that hitched the horses was still around the tree, only cut. The horses hadn't been led away, they had been cut loose. And Ling was nowhere in sight.

Shifu cursed.

He eyed the horizon on all sides before sprinting back to the carriage. He sprang up, flipped, and landed on top of the carriage, his best vantage point. Surrounded by woods on three sides, they were atop a long hill that sloped into a snowy plain on the other. A thick, grey bank of clouds was coming in over the plain. A blizzard, and soon.

Sharp whistles came from the woods.

Arrows.

Shifu faced them head on, deflecting them quite easily. Another barrage came, and behind them, six men on horseback. Bandits. He squinted his eyes. Monkeys. Monkeys? Whoever heard of a gang of Monkey bandits?

The Princess had opened the door. "Master Shifu - ? What's going-" An arrow hit the door and she shrieked.

"Stay inside!" Shifu bellowed, kicking the door closed as he deflected an arrow headed straight for her face. He leapt back on the roof. Okay, he thought, six bastards on horseback with arrows. Not too hard. He readied himself to charge, to jump, when he heard whistles from the opposite side.

More arrows. Seven guys on horseback.

Okay. Thirteen guys on horseback. A little harder.

Shifu said a brief prayer to Oogway, steeled his heart, and prepared to kick some ass.

000

His placed himself in front of the carriage door, determined to hold that position. They wouldn't get to her if he had anything to say about it. Seven arrows deflected, eight more. He flew towards the nearest bandit, planting his heel directly the teeth, swung around the neck of the bandit's horse using the bridle, gained some force by pushing his foot against the horse's shoulder, and projected himself into the chests and jaws of three more men.

He leapt back and landed in front of the carriage door, but the carriage started rolling away. The bastards coming from the other side were dragging it. Not a sound came from inside the cabin but he didn't have a moment to be concerned. He leapt back on top of the carriage, and then high in the air. Below him a bandit had hitched two horses to the carriage and was pulling it away. Shifu landed upon him, planting his heel in the neck with enough force to kill instantly.

The horses spooked and began to gallop, dragging the carriage along. It tumbled onto it's side but the horses kept pulling it through the snow in a panic. Shifu was thrown off, tumbling. He leapt to his feet. More arrows. He deflected the ones coming directly at him, but one came in from the side too quickly for him to block. It grazed his arm, ripping out a deep slice of his bicep with a fine mist of blood. Shifu gasped and cried out.

He grit his teeth. Just a flesh wound. Keep going. The carriage rolled farther and farther away, and the bandits were descending upon it.

He began to charge but felt himself being lifted off the ground and swung into the air. A bandit on horseback had lassoed him. Shifu grabbed the rope and pulled the bandit off his saddle, and twisted the rope around the bandit's neck as it fell. He leapt off the ground and pulled until he felt the snap, then fell back down to the bandit's body to sack it for weapons.

Monkey bandits? Who were these men? The brown cloak the monkey wore had fallen aside to reveal a red shift. He patted down the dead bandit's side and found a sword in a red sheath. He had taken it and charged down into the valley before it occurred to him he was holding a Goose Quill Saber.

What the? - Shifu thought as he jumped into the air, pointing the saber down to thrust it through the helmet of a bandit who had crawled up the side of the carriage to get to the door. He swung the body upwards by the head, letting it fling cleanly off the blade into two other bandits.

Not bandits, Shifu though grimly. Soldiers. Only Imperial Military used the Goose Quill Saber.

These were the Emperor's men.

A surge of pure crimson rage swept through him, hot enough to melt lead. What in the HELL was going on here?

Shifu stood on the carriage door, chopping and kicking his way through men. They came at him from every direction, overpowering him, forcing him down. Shifu shoved his slim cold fingers into eyes, his feet and knees into groins, grunting. He went limp, reduced his consciousness into a small glowing blue ball of electric chi, and with a bellow released it into the pile of men atop him.

They flew through the air on a sapphire bubble. The horses spooked, spreading to the four winds. Shifu gasped, flipped onto his stomach and forced the carriage door open. "Meihui!"

She was twisted in a knot of coverings. A chunk of her ear was missing. Blood flowed down onto her face, which was scratched and bruised from tumbling around the cabin. The shiny, sharp trinkets from her boxes had exploded everywhere, and the pot of ink from the calligraphy set had spilled across her chest. Her hanfu was torn, exposing her thigh and hip. She looked dazed.

"Shi -Shifu-?" she said dizzily and coughed, reaching up to him with her delicate little hand.

"Little one!" he cried, "We have to get out of-"

Suddenly the weight of a thousand stars struck the side of his face, and the world went black.

000

He awakened face down in snow and blood, his head throbbing, his arm numb from the wound down.

Just flesh. Go.

Shifu leapt to his feet, tiny shooting stars flying in his vision. The snow blinded him He did a flip over the carriage, stomach churning. The door was open and blankets hung out like a dead tongue, indicating Meihui had been dragged out. There was a thick trail in the snow and footprints leading down into the valley, but incoming blizzard was starting to obscure them.

Shifu swore loudly, and began to run so fast the snow melted under his feet.

Those god damned Imperial son of a bitch bastards! It was a trap all along. They probably had the Jade Palace surrounded and he was kilometers away in the middle of nowhere. Tigress leapt to his mind, how he had last seen her, so worried for him at the base of the palace steps. Tigress, my masterpiece, he thought. I know you'll protect the Palace. You'll fight till the steps are a waterfall of blood. May the Gods watch over you, my good strong girl.

The snow blew in sideways, hitting his face in great wet clots. The trail was now obscured but he ran anyway, and kept running until he saw a grey form moving in the distance. With a growl he leapt into the air. The snow cleared before him. It was another monkey, dragging the a limp Meihui by the neck through the snow. Shifu angled himself to impact the base of the skull with a fatal heel strike.

At the last minute the monkey threw Meihui down and turned to face him, grabbing his ankle, using Shifu's own force to send him slamming into the ground.

Oh, Buddha's burning balls, Shifu thought as the impact reopened his sliced bicep.

That monkey was Ling.

And Ling knew Kung-Fu.

000

Shifu leapt to his feet, flipped, and propelled himself directly into Ling's chest. It was a reckless move borne from acid-spitting rage. What the hell kind set up was this? No wonder the Sri-Teng school sent an assassin to kill Emperor Li-Fu five hundred years ago, he thought. If I live through this my fist will be the last thing that bastard sees before he wakes up in Hell.

They spun end over end. Shifu redirected the energy of the spin to throw Ling into a tree trunk. The monkey flipped so he hit it feet first, and propelled himself up over Shifu's head to land behind him, soft as a peach blossom.

Shifu and Ling circled each other in the snow, staring each other down. Ling regarded Shifu cooly but didn't make a move.

"Well!" Shifu barked. "Come at me, son! I haven't got all day."

"If you insist,"Ling hissed, and leapt high into the air - so high he was obscured by the blizzarding snow. Shifu followed suit, grabbing Ling's shin, flipping himself upwards to kick Ling in the face. Right before Shifu's heel hit Ling's jaw the monkey grabbed it and threw Shifu back down to the ground.

Stop coming at him with your feet, Shifu thought, turning end over end so he hit the ground running. Ling suddenly came blasting out of the fog fists first. Shifu jumped to avoid the hit, landing nicely in a tree branch. Ling swung up to meet him, and Shifu used his superior agility to jump from higher to higher branches. As he hit them sharp icicles fell from the underside, only just missing impaling Ling. It was then Shifu had an idea.

He leapt from branch to branch, shaking off the icicles, and kicking them as they fell so they landed in the snow sharp-side up, as fast as he could. Ling, being a monkey, was good at swinging from branches, but Shifu had him outpaced, circling round and round the tree until he reached the very top branch.

Lightning lit up the night as Ling swung up to meet Shifu, using a broken tree branch as a club. Shifu leapt, coming down on the branch itself, then onLing's head. Shifu flipped end over end, landing a solid kick to Ling's face. Ling took the blow well, using the energy to flip himself down onto a lower branch.

Shifu remained at the top, glaring down at Ling, who glared back.

Come on, Shifu thought, making a beckoning gesture. Come on up and get me.

"Ha! You think I don't know you have an advantage up there? I'll wait you out, Master. You're not who I'm after anyway. Another five minutes and the cold will have done my work for me," Ling shouted up.

Shifu's heart skipped a beat. Meihui.

Ling smiled smugly. "I hear you are the greatest Kung Fu warrior in China."

Shifu didn't respond.

"I have often wondered what the secret is of such greatness."

"Come up here and I'll tell you."

"Ha! You think I am foolish? You are getting old, Master. Perhaps after you have frozen to death I will come to the Jade Palace in the dead of night and vanquish your students one by one. Then I will be the greatest warrior in China! I trained under the Imperial Master. I will bring that honor back to the Forbidden City, where it belongs."

Shifu said nothing. Ling grinned.

"My Master and I would take apart the Jade Palace and use the stones for a proper Kung Fu academy, one strictly in the honor of the Son of Heaven. The knowledge of ultimate power should not be made available to any peasant," he spat, "who strolls into a school. We will build a far greater Kung Fu school than you ever could." Ling closed his eyes, imagining it. "And then we will-"

And suddenly Ling fell.

The second Ling had shut his eyes Shifu leapt upon him, forcing him down. They exchanged blows in midair. Shifu let his consciousness charge with chi and released a blast into the stunned monkey's body, slamming him down onto the end-up icicles below, impaling him through the chest. At the last minute Shifu did a delicate flip, landing next to him.

Shifu leaned down to whisper in Ling's ear. Ling, eyes wide from shock, turned towards Shifu.

"The secret of greatness is..." Shifu began, but did not finish. He merely paused then took off into the valley, leaving Ling to the afterlife.

000

He charged out into the snow. "Princess!" he called, the wind blocking his voice. He tried not to let morbid thoughts get in the way of his mission, though he knew it was unlikely that she was alive at this point, and even if she was, he had very little chance of finding her buried beneath snow drifts.

He kept running in the direction he was relatively sure he came. She couldn't have gotten far, if she'd gotten anywhere at all.

"Princess!" he called into the wind. "Meihui!"

He heard her before he saw her. Some kind of odd...singing? Singing in a strange language that faded in and out with the wind. He sped up and she came into view. She was walking - stumbling- blindly into the snow, and singing at the top of her lungs, her voice vibrating with the cold. How she was still upright and moving was beyond him. The cold must driven her insane.

He caught up to her, grabbing her shoulder. "Meihui!"

She shook him off. "L-l-l-leave m-e!"

"Princess, we must find shelter!" he grabbed her by both shoulders.

"Release me!" she cried, clawing him across the face, her nails like ice needles. "L-leave me be!" She took another swipe at him and he blocked it, locking her arms under his. She pushed against him, weakly. "Y-y-you are a ...silly old -m-man. D-don't you see, I w-was sent out here to d-d-d-die. I j-just have to fnish the j-j-job."

"Who? Who sent you out here to die? The Emperor?"

She laughed grimly and her body spasmed in pain. Shifu undid his coat and threw it over her.

"N-no," she said, "The Em-emperor sent you t-t-to prot-t-tect me."

"Then who wants you dead!"

Meihui's head fell back and she stared blindly up into the sky, gasping "The - the Empress."

"What! What about the gift for the Mongol Queen?"

"There is no g-g-gift. Emp-press and the Emp-p-p-peror are p-p-playing a game with my life. The Emperor h-has won," she said, "So I...I have lost."

"What!"

"He wants me t-to live," she said, "but I would rather d-d-d- die. So l-let me," she hissed, sinking her nails into his sides, fighting against him.

"You are frozen and delirious, Meihui! Stop fighting me!"

"Ny name," she growled from somewhere deep within her, "is Habika. L-let me d-die with my given n-name!"

"Whoever you are, you must stop -" she clawed wildly at his face again - "stop - stop it! - oh, hell!" Shifu grasped her neck at the base of the skull and squeezed. She gasped and went limp. Muttering, he heaved her onto his back, and ran towards where he thought the carriage had last been. With luck it wasn't full of snow.

There were tall dark figures ahead of him as he ran. Were they trees? Must be trees. Wait...no. What else is tall and dark but trees? They don't look like trees. But they hd to be. Shifu gasped and tried to skid to a stop. They weren't trees, they were rocks. And they were a lot closer than he'd thought.

Shifu put his arm out to block the impact.

Only there was no impact.

Just when he thought he was going to slam into solid stone he and the Princess merely tumbled softly through a membrane of snow, and hit a hard cold floor. She rolled off his back and moaned softly.

They were in a cave, the entrance to which had been blocked by snow. Shifu looked around, astonished at his luck. It was dark and freezing cold, but it was at least dry. It would do until the storm passed.

"Thank you," Shifu whispered into the ether.

The Princess - Meihui?- Habika? did not look well. Shifu gathered her up in his arms and took her further back into the cave. She needed warmth, and now. He wrapped her back up in the coat, trying as best as he could to stuff her inside it entirely. Her hanfu was soaked and she was still shivering and gasping for breath. He realized quite quickly what he had to do but he hesitated to do it out of propriety.

Well, Shifu thought, it may be improper, but there's nothing more improper than a dead woman.

He rolled her over so her back was to him and pulled the coat off her, pulling her to him so her back was against his chest. He took her feet between his and curled his tail up around them. He then pulled the coat over them both like a blanket and curled as tightly against her as he could.

She shuddered against him, gasping. It was only then that Shifu realized how cold he'd actually been. His fingertips, toes, and ears burned as the nerves thawed. The wound in his arm was quietly hinting of the pain he'd be in later. He was exhausted and suddenly wanted to sleep more than anything in the world.

He pressed himself to her, and she made a little moan of grateful pleasure. He circled his arms around her waist and buried his face in the back of her neck, breathing his chi into her spine. Her freezing shudders gradually subsided and she melted into him. An intense thrill rippled through him at this but he was too tired to even scold himself. He tightened his arms around her and fell asleep.

000