Da Qing looks down at the drawing in his hand and then around him at the rocks and grass sparsely scattered on this particular plateau of the mountain. There aren’t any signs that Kunlun’s been here. Not that he can see, anyway.
“But I’m a Cat, not a Dog. Why would they send me to look for someone?”
He huffs and rolls the parchment back up, tucking it into the sash at his waist. He decides to take a break from his search—days of fruitless searching! All for some human who’s so helpless he’s apparently possibly wandering around the mountains unable to find the entrance to their headquarters—and lies down on one of the large flat rocks that’s been warmed by the sun.
Ah, that feels good. He can feel the heat soaking into his body, making him sleepy.
Perhaps he’ll just take a short nap here. His eyes drift shut and he curls onto his side.
There’s probably no rush. If the human’s been wandering around the mountain for this long, he’ll be okay for a few more hours.
In the end, he finds Kunlun almost accidentally. He’s looking down at the sketch of the man and when he looks back up, there he is sitting on a rock right in front of him. Da Qing can’t believe his luck.
Kunlun’s an odd one—his hair is cut far shorter than is proper and he’s dressed in clothes unlike anything Da Qing’s seen—but at least he had the good sense to sit in one place and wait to be found. He had also known Da Qing’s name before he had a chance to introduce himself, which is perplexing because Da Qing is quite sure he would remember if he knew Kunlun even after the Hallows had made some of his memories go all fuzzy.
Perhaps it’s a human thing, he muses as he leads the way down the mountain, to behave so familiarly around others, even complete strangers. He himself takes a long time to warm up to people, though Kunlun is surprisingly endearing with his bewildering lack of knowledge about the world and the history of their people. Perhaps he doesn’t get a lot of news or visitors on his mountain.
He gives him a brief summary but in the end, it’s something for Lord Ma Gui and High Chief Fu You to deal with. And he’s happy to leave them to it as he’s dismissed from the main chambers.
It’s not the last he sees of Kunlun, though, because the man attaches himself to the Black Cloaked Envoy’s side almost immediately. Da Qing’s not officially part of his squad—he’s not trained enough in fighting for that and he doesn’t feel like taking one of those spots away from all the Dixingren who are vying to fight near their commander besides—but he does like the Envoy so he spends a lot of time in his presence, either on two feet or four. He’s soothing to be around, he doesn’t bother Da Qing, and, best of all, nobody comes to disrupt their peace.
Until Kunlun, that is.
Kunlun saunters into one of the smaller caverns that the Black Cloaked Envoy and Da Qing are occupying one day. The Envoy’s standing at the small round table in the center, studying a setup of rocks and markers that he’d created to help him think through his next mission. Da Qing’s curled up on a soft cushion near the wall. He had been thinking about napping when Kunlun’s voice interrupts him. He slits his eyes open to watch the scene unfold, distantly curious. Kunlun’s dressed in normal clothes now and his hair is at the proper length, having grown out in a shockingly short amount of time. Is that a human ability? To change one’s appearance so quickly?
“So this is where you go during the day, Shen Wei,” Kunlun says with a teasing smile.
Shen Wei? Da Qing supposes that that’s the Envoy’s actual name. And that he must have given it to Kunlun during one of their late night talks up on the cliff.
The Envoy—or should he call him Lao Shen now? Da Qing will have to think on this—ducks his head a little. “Ah, yes, sometimes. When I have an upcoming mission to strategize for, I’ll come here to do some initial planning and then meet with my generals.”
“Always such a thorough and hard worker,” Kunlun comments. He sidles up to the table until he’s standing so close to the Black Cloaked Envoy that their sides are nearly touching. Da Qing doesn’t understand why he doesn’t just finish the movement and rub against him. How else would he know about Kunlun’s affection for him?
Da Qing closes his eyes again, rapidly losing interest in the proceedings. A nap does sound pretty good, actually. As he drifts off, he catches Kunlun murmuring, “Perhaps when you’re done here, I can help you with your hair before bed again? I promise I’ll do a better job with the braids tomorrow morning. I’ve been practicing all day.”
There’s a hitch in the Envoy’s breathing before he whispers, “Yes, I’d like that.”
An offer for them to groom each other. Now that’s a proper courting, Da Qing thinks with approval. Perhaps Kunlun isn’t completely hopeless after all.
Professor Shen doesn’t quite look familiar but he does have a familiar presence. So much of Da Qing’s memories are missing though that he’s gotten used to that sensation. Instead, what draws his attention is the way the professor smells. Specifically, like a Dixingren. And an ancient and powerful one. Only he’s claiming to be a human.
Is it possible he doesn’t know about his heritage? Or is he trying to hide who he is so he can evade the SID’s scrutiny? Da Qing wouldn’t normally care about this but Chief Zhao seems overly invested in the professor. Does that mean he suspects something too? He certainly keeps saying he does but his actions are puzzling.
Da Qing gets used to hearing about Professor Shen both at home and at work. Chief Zhao paces in his living room or sits hunched over on his couch, talking aimlessly about the professor. He always starts off from a case-related point but it inevitably devolves into musings over the other man’s features—his eyes, his voice, his intellect, his smiles.
Da Qing quickly gets bored of it and has taken to curling up on the windowsill in his cat form, so that he can just meow every once in a while and pretend like he’s listening. He doesn’t know why Chief Zhao is so taken with Professor Shen but he hopes that he does something about it soon.
Humans are so confusing.
He figures out that Professor Shen is actually the Black Cloaked Envoy after a few more personal encounters with both of them. They smell the same, so it was quite obvious really. After that, it makes more sense why Chief Zhao had been so obsessed with the professor. Clearly, he’d known for some time.
And having the professor around is certainly a boon to the SID. It’s a little more annoying having him at home. Not because he bothers Da Qing—he’s actually quite respectful, it’s refreshing to be around someone who recognizes Da Qing’s superiority and doesn’t try to tell him what to do—but because now he and Chief Zhao are a little more active at night and nights have always been Da Qing’s time.
Tonight, for example. Professor Shen’s bought more groceries for the three of them and has spent a good amount of time cooking up several dishes. Many of them are Chief Zhao’s favorites but there are several that are Da Qing’s too, so he’s taken on his human form for dinner. He climbs up onto the countertop and leans back against the wall while Chief Zhao and Professor Shen sit on stools across from each other.
“You should eat more vegetables,” the professor says, and takes some from the central serving dish with his chopsticks to put on Chief Zhao’s bowl of rice.
Chief Zhao retaliates by picking up a few choices pieces of meat and dropping them into the professor’s bowl. “Well, then, you need more meat, what with all that fighting you do.” He flashes him a flirtatious smile but his eyes are all soft and fond.
The professor blushes.
Da Qing watches the exchange in fascination, absently eating his own portions. No one gives him anything but that’s okay, because he’d already taken his top picks. He does approve of the professor providing them with food. That’s a proper courtship ritual.
He doesn’t know why Chief Zhao’s attempt with the books hadn’t worked; even if it hadn’t been a new gift for Professor Shen, it was still returning something of his, right?
He’s given up on trying to understand humans. He doesn’t remember how old he is exactly, but he feels like he’s been around long enough to realize that humans are fickle. And weird. Only some of them are worth spending time with. Chief Zhao and Professor Shen (even though he’s not actually a human) are two of those, so it’s a good thing they’re together. It makes it easier for Da Qing.
As they near the end of their meal, Chief Zhao and Professor Shen start exchanging more physical touches. Chief Zhao taps the professor on the hand to get his attention, even though he already has it. The professor grasps Chief Zhao’s hand where it’s holding his glass while he refills it with water—and that’s another thing that Da Qing likes, that since the professor has come into their lives, Chief Zhao has been drinking less alcohol. Da Qing despises the smell of it and he’d started getting concerned about the changes he could sense happening in Chief Zhao’s body from it. (He doesn’t like that one time Chief Zhao made them go for a jog, though. What’s the point of running if it isn’t for the purpose of taking down prey?)
He’s not interested in being around for the rest of their activities so he licks his fingers and decides to leave the apartment to them for the night.
“I’m going out,” he announces and transforms into his cat form as he hops off the countertop. “Don’t wait up.” Then he leaps up onto the windowsill and ducks outside, swishing his tail at them in farewell.
They’d better appreciate his generosity.
When it’s all over, there aren’t even ashes left of Professor Shen. The Black Cloaked Envoy. Da Qing supposes that’s a more accurate name for him, because he’s always been more than a university professor.
Lin Jing leads them to Chief Zhao where he’s propped up against a low wall just outside the palace. They arrive just in time to watch as the last of his life force leaves his body and transfers into the Guardian Lantern. He slumps down into unnatural stillness and the lit lantern slips out of his grip to fall at his side.
With a cry, they rush over to check on him but there’s nothing they can do. He’s clutching an amber pendant in his hand which Da Qing recognizes as one that he’s seen around Professor Shen’s neck. He makes sure to pocket it safely for the Chief while Zhu Hong gingerly picks up the Lantern. The ground is still shaking but it’s steadying out as the minutes go by.
Part of him wants to shake Chief Zhao, to tell him to stop sleeping so deeply and to wake up because he’s his human and that means he has to do what Da Qing tells him to do. But the other part of him knows that that won’t happen. Humans don’t have multiple lives like Cats do. Zhao Yunlan won’t be coming back from this.
Around them, the people of Dixing are drifting out from their homes, exclaiming over how the air is fresher and how good it feels to have sunlight.
“The Lantern has done its job. We’ll be taking it back with us now. The Yashou tribes will watch over all the Hallows,” Zhu Hong somberly tells the King and the Regent, who have just made their way to them from the palace.
Both of them bow with a fist to their hand. “Please know that the people of Dixing will forever be grateful to the Lord of the Guardians for his sacrifice today,” the Regent says.
Zhu Hong just presses her lips together tightly and nods shortly in acceptance.
He and Lin Jing prop Chief Zhao’s body up between them and carry it back to the portal that they had used to enter Dixing. It feels almost like one of those nights when Chief Zhao’s had too much alcohol and Da Qing had to help him get back home. Except that Chief Zhao isn’t moving, talking, or breathing and his body is far too cold for a human’s. Da Qing resolutely doesn’t think about it. He has a task to do, and that task is to make sure they get the Chief home.
The Lantern glows in his peripheral vision, where Zhu Hong is keeping pace with them and being careful to hold it steady. But he can tell that the flame is dimming as they walk through Dixing; at the same time, the city seems to brighten up around them. Flowers bloom in the windowsill boxes of the houses they pass, the colors on the walls of the buildings no longer look as washed out, grass appears in the plots of dirt that line the road outside the city center.
They come to where Ye Zun had been imprisoned in his pillar. It looks like a desolate wasteland, with just the pillar and large concrete debris scattered around. Only as they make their way slowly through it, bright green grass pops up like a carpet being rolled out. Small plants sprout up and grow at a rapid pace, until small trees litter the field.
Da Qing looks around, wide eyed. He glances over at the Guardian Lantern. Is this all really the work of the Lantern? The flame starts flickering weakly. “What’s happening?” he asks in alarm.
Zhu Hong shrugs helplessly. “I don’t know.”
Behind them, Dixingren who had been trailing them to marvel at the wonders taking place right in front of their eyes split off to examine the new plant growth. Some of the children start to run around in an impromptu game of tag. Their laughter is a soothing balm. Da Qing is almost tempted to take his cat form and join them.
When they get to where the portal should be, it doesn’t open.
“Let’s try the other entry,” Lao Chu suggests. They follow him, too drained and numb to even worry about why this portal disappeared.
The flame goes out completely while they walk. The grief hits all of them hard and simultaneously. They freeze in place, staring at the darkened Lantern.
Zhu Hong bites down on her fist with a muffled sob.
Lin Jing blinks rapidly behind his glasses, tears running down his cheeks.
And Da Qing...well, he feels like a gaping hole has opened up inside him and like he’s teetering on the edge of it. He shakes himself out of his grief. Chief Zhao would laugh at them for behaving like this. He’s done his part, and he’s done it well. They should celebrate that, and him.
“Let’s go,” he urges softly. So they do.
Each Hallow is placed onto the pedestal that was created for it in the cave that’s guarded by the Snake tribe. The portal to Dixing may be closed permanently, but it’s still as good a place as any to store the Hallows safely.
Lin Jing takes over the lease for Chief Zhao’s apartment, which is good because Da Qing doesn’t know anything about renting a place. If it had been left entirely to him, he’d have packed up everything and put them into storage in the SID’s headquarters. It doesn’t feel right at the apartment without Chief Zhao, but at least Lin Jing is a familiar face, who honors the memory of Chief Zhao and Professor Shen the same way Da Qing does. And he knows his place and understands that Da Qing’s the one who’s really in charge (which is to say that he has a healthy fear of irritating Da Qing).
Zhang Shi takes up residence in Chief Zhao’s body and takes over running the SID. Da Qing stays on as Deputy Chief, which he likes. He has the power and flexibility of being in charge (and he makes sure that all the new recruits know that) without having to do the paperwork. Which is another human thing that he’s never quite understood or cared for.
Years pass and life goes on. He’s seen a lot in his ten thousand years, and he’ll see more in the next however many years he continues to live. Chief Zhao isn’t the first human he’s lost and this isn’t the first time he’s lost him either.
But one day, he sees something that makes him stop in his tracks, breath catching in his throat and heart squeezing tightly in his chest: two men strolling by him hand in hand along the cobblestone streets of the downtown shopping plaza. It’s less the sight of them than the overwhelmingly familiar smell and sense of them. He whips his head around to follow their progress, watching as one throws his head back in raucous laughter while the other one ducks his head with a grin. He imagines that if this was a television drama or a movie, he’d see the images of Chief Zhao and Professor Shen superimposed on those two, looking more carefree and happier than they ever had the chance to be before.
They head for a cafe in the square and sit at one of the outdoor tables. Da Qing gives in and ducks into an alley to transform. Then he sidles up to them and winds through their legs. One of them—he’s pretty sure it’s Chief Zhao’s reincarnation—chuckles and reaches a hand down to scratch the top of his head.
“Look at this fat little kitty!” he tells Professor Shen’s reincarnation.
Da Qing purrs happily. He doesn’t even take offense at the insult. This close, and with the heightened sense of smell that his cat form has, he’s positive that this is really his human, given another chance at life.
“Mm, he really is a very pretty cat,” Professor Shen’s reincarnation says. Da Qing slits his eyes open at him in appreciation. Good old Professor Shen, sensible and reliable as always.
He’s about to jump up to the table and introduce himself to them, eager to get them back into the SID, when the waitress arrives with two cups of coffee.
“Ah, exactly what I need,” Chief Zhao says happily, “enough caffeine to help me stay awake tonight while I pack for our trip.”
“You haven’t—” Professor Shen sighs. “Of course you haven’t packed yet.”
“It’s fine, Juntian. I don’t have that much I’m going to bring.”
“We’re taking a two week trip. To multiple cities.” Professor Shen sounds both unimpressed and fondly amused.
“Well then, I’ll just pack everything in my closet.”
Professor Shen just sighs again. Da Qing sits back on his haunches and watches the exchange. This is...different. The two of them are different from what he remembers.
“Anyway! Are you excited for the trip? I am. It’s taken us so long to coordinate our schedules and plan this.”
“I am looking forward to it as well. I’ve never been outside of Dragon City.”
“Me neither. It’ll be fun, exploring new places together. Trying new food. Testing out the soundproofing of different hotel rooms.” Chief Zhao waggles his eyebrows at Professor Shen, who flushes and then rolls his eyes with a bitten back smile.
“You love it. What would you ever do without me?”
“Die of boredom and routine, I suspect.”
“Yeah, most likely. See? Aren’t you happy that I bumped into you that day it was pouring rain and you offered to share your umbrella with me while we waited for the bus?”
“You didn’t even need the bus.”
“Nope. But I did need to talk to you. And here we are, a year later, going on our first trip together. And, you don’t know it yet, but when we get back, I’m going to ask you to move in with me.” Then he hisses and shakes his head at himself, pinching the bridge of his nose.
“You what?” Professor Shen looks floored.
Chief Zhao digs a key out of his pocket and holds it up. “Move in with me. You already spend more time at my place than yours. Half the food in my fridge and cabinets are things that you like to eat, half my closet is filled with your clothes, and my bedsheets smell like you. I love waking up next to you and I want that to become a regular thing. An everyday thing.”
“We…we haven’t even gone on our trip yet. You just said you were going to ask after that.”
“Yeah, you know how terrible I am at planning things. So? What do you say, do you want to move in with me?”
Instead of responding verbally, Professor Shen leans over the table and kisses Chief Zhao deeply. “Yes,” he whispers when he pulls back. “I would like very much to move in with you.” He licks into Chief Zhao’s mouth and seals their lips together once more. When he sits back down in his seat, Chief Zhao looks dazed.
“Well, that’s good then.”
Da Qing realizes what’s different about them: they’re lighter. Freer. They’re more focused on each other and the relationship they’re building. He decides to leave them be. He winds through their legs again and curls his tail around them in a brief farewell before he saunters off.
“Aw, the kitty’s leaving!”
“He’s a stray cat, Xiao Liang. He’s not yours.”
No, he’s not. But one day, he might be. He’s not going to tell them about the SID or about who they had been in the past, though. They deserve to have this life, to enjoy each other and the world without shouldering the burdens of everyone else’s safety and well-being.
He pauses to look back at them before he turns the corner. They’ve forgotten about him already. They’re leaning into each other, looking like they’re deep in conversation. Their fingers are tangled together on top of the table. If Da Qing squints, he can almost see the outlines of Chief Zhao and Professor Shen in their places.
He feels something settle inside him in satisfaction, knowing that his human and his human’s mate are getting their happily ever after.