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In the Customary Manner

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Zhao Yunlan lounges happily on an old bench in the dappled shade, watching the preparations for the afternoon’s feast.

His official introductions as head of the SID to the Yashou tribes are going well, if he does say so himself. He managed the ceremonial greetings with the elders of the Flower Tribe this morning without embarrassing himself, and has charmed them enough that what started with a chilly formal meeting has slowly devolved into the atmosphere of an extended family picnic.

The main cooks had laughingly shoved him out of their way more than an hour ago, leaving him and Da Qing with nothing to do but enjoy the sunshine and smile at the Yashouren who walk by.

So when one of the tiny children jogs over to stare intently at him, he’s too busy trying to seem harmless and friendly to think about strange foreign customs.

“Hey there,” he says with a tiny wave, trying not to startle her.

She waves back, still staring. It’s disconcerting, but small children frequently are. Then she plucks a string of daisies from midair -- manifests them, Zhao Yunlan reminds himself -- and holds them out to him.

“Are those for me?” he asks, reaching forward --

“Chief Zhao!”

-- only to have his arm pulled back by Da Qing as the girl’s parent swoops in to pick her up.

“I’m terribly sorry, Lord Guardian, she’s at that age--”

Zhao Yunlan, startled, sits back and throws a glance at Da Qing.

“Unless lao-Zhao wants to consider the betrothal?” Da Qing snickers at him.

They’ve definitely attracted attention. Besides the girl and her mother, heads have turned all over the clearing to watch how he handles this. It shouldn’t be a problem, but… trust new-won is fragile.

Zhao Yunlan laughs loudly and waves off the mother’s apology. “I’m very flattered, but I couldn't accept. Da Qing here is in charge of my marriage negotiations.”

He claps Da Qing on the shoulder before the cat can dodge out of the way.

“Lao-Zhao!” Da Qing hisses at him, as if everyone around them can’t hear every word. “I can’t be your matchmaker!”

“Sure you can,” Zhao Yunlan whispers back, and sees the amused looks pass around the clearing.

“Ugh.” Da Qing sags back on the bench. “How am I gonna find someone to marry an idiot like you?”

A few months later, Zhao Yunlan opens the door of the SID offices and is struck by the foulest possible stench, like the takeout in the bottom of his fridge got together with his dirty laundry and partied with a bottle of long-expired fish sauce. He gags when the first wave hits him, eyes watering, and stumbles into the main room expecting a monster, a failed science experiment, something --

-- but not Da Qing rolling blissfully on the table next to a red and gold wooden box, a bundle of dried leaves clutched between his paws.

“Fat Cat!” It’s supposed to be a shout, but Zhao Yunlan has his hand clapped over his nose and mouth, so it comes out too muffled to sound commanding.

Zhu Hong, who was standing there glaring at Da Qing, turns her glare on Zhao Yunlan. “This is your fault,” she says, and storms out.

“What the hell?”

Da Qing flops over on his side and slits one of his eyes open. “Marriage offer,” he slurs out.

Zhao Yunlan draws in a breath to laugh, then chokes on the smell. “Looks like you love them already!”

“Not for me!” Da Qing’s tail lashes once. “For you!”

The box has twining vines along the edges, and Zhao Yunlan belatedly recognizes one of the Flower Tribe family crests. Of course they’d have Yashou catnip. Of course they would.

Zhao Yunlan feels a little light-headed, whether from the stench or from fighting not to breathe.

“Say no!”

Da Qing pauses in mid-roll, his belly bared to the world like the most adorable trap. “I’m thinking about it.”

“Damn Cat.” Zhao Yunlan tries to glare, but it bounces off Da Qing even more than usual.

“They’re a very respectable family, lao-Zhao! I have to think of my responsibilities to you.” Da Qing curls over and rubs his face into the bundle of dried leaves again, sending a fresh plume of stench into the air.

Responsibilities, my ass, Zhao Yunlan thinks, but he’s already running away.

Eventually, Zhao Yunlan gets used to it. A new box arrives every few months from a different Yashou family, gradually branching out from the Flower Tribe as the story gets passed around. Apparently, choosing a member of Cat Tribe as his matchmaker was enough to make him eligible for the usual wedding games, even with his unfortunate Haixingren blood. It’s a tradition: the family sends a box with their crest, containing objects representing the potential suitor’s advantages and hopes for the match.

(“They don’t really want to marry you,” Zhu Hong tells him at one point, filing her nails aggressively. “It’s just politics.”

Zhao Yunlan isn’t so sure.)

He barely pays attention to them now, except to tease Da Qing about his matchmaking skills.

He certainly doesn’t notice the way Professor Shen’s eyes track the latest box as Da Qing takes it outside to open.

A month after the thwarted rebellion in Dixing, another box arrives. But this one is black and silver, the curling design along the sides heart-poundingly familiar. Zhao Yunlan makes Da Qing bring it into his office to open, certain that this one, at least, won’t send him fleeing from the building.

“Did he tell you about this?” Da Qing asks, fingers tracing the catch of the box like he’s the nervous one.

“No.” Zhao Yunlan perches on the edge of his desk. For the first time, he wonders where someone gets a box like this. Are they heirlooms, or is there a thriving wood-carving trade out in Yashou territory? The hardware on the box looks ancient. “But everyone knows you’re the one they have to convince.”

The box opens smoothly, and Da Qing reaches in carefully to pull out one item at a time. On top is lemon ginger fish, in two of Shen Wei’s best lunch containers -- but Da Qing doesn’t pause to open them, not even to sniff, just looks at them longingly and sets them aside.

Zhao Yunlan drops a comforting hand onto his shoulder. “Damn Cat, you don’t have to take it so seriously.”

Da Qing huffs. “I can’t let you marry just anyone.”

Zhao Yunlan leaves his hand there anyway, and Da Qing leans into it.

Next is a book, a small leather-bound journal with painfully neat handwriting. Legends of Dixing is written on the cover, and inside are what look to be children’s stories and some old songs. Under the book is a pair of hand guards like Hei Pao Shi wears, and Zhao Yunlan shivers to see them. He can guess what's being promised, here, even if he doesn’t speak the language.

Underneath it all is an ink sketch, carefully drawn and shaded in subtly different blacks and greys, of Shen Wei and Zhao Yunlan on the couch in his living room. Shen Wei has his glasses on the table, student papers in his hands. Zhao Yunlan is sprawled barefoot across him, playing with his phone. And on the back of the couch is a black cat wearing a belled collar, asleep in the sun.

Zhao Yunlan isn’t sure if Da Qing’s breath hitches, or if it’s just that his own hand is shaking. Zhao Yunlan pretends not to see his friend wipe a tear away. He’s a bit misty-eyed himself.

“What do you think, matchmaker? Should we take this one?”

Da Qing trails a finger along the edge of the sketch and nods. “Yeah. This one’s a keeper.”