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    Shen had a calendar on his desk that had ten days a month highlighted in red. These days were the Uposatha- Buddhist observance days on which practicing Buddhists and Bodhisattva like Shen observed their respective precepts. Shen had observed these days ever since he was a child, at least in part. Certain elements, like fasting, were not allowed to be practiced by children for safety reasons. But now that he was grown, Shen fasted for the ten days of Uposatha. And up until now, that hadn't been a problem. 

 

    Up until now, a lot of the things Shen did hadn't been a problem. 

 

    The life of an American college student wasn't one well-suited for a Buddhist, especially one who practiced as strictly as Shen did. It was difficult to find quiet, still places to meditate, difficult to find pure food, difficult to find those who practiced the same habits Shen did and provide him with some sense of community and connectedness. People judged the way Shen opted to live, and for the second time in his life, Shen found himself questioning the vows he had taken.

 

    And there were a lot of them. When he was living in the monastery, Shen had undergone thirty-six vows, as all novices did; now that he was a lay Buddhist, living outside of a monastery, his Pratimokṣa was limited to the Five Precepts, along with an additional eight for fasting. Still, Shen tried to follow the ten major Bodhisattva precepts as well. He had been raised as a Bodhisattva; a person meant to achieve total spiritual enlightenment. It was easy when he was living in an isolated village surrounded by people trying to do the same, but in America, it was a full-time job. And sometimes it was just the little things that made it difficult. 

 

    It was the eight day of the lunar calendar. Shen had just gotten back from rehearsal, which had gone on for three hours. and he was starving. But it was Uposatha, so he was unable to eat. And that was completely fine with Shen.     

 

    He had just set his backpack down and was about to start on a report for his speech class when someone pounded on his bedroom door. Shen opened it and found Akali, dressed casually and holding a ladle that was about to drip sauce onto the floor. "Hey, I made bulgogi. Come eat with us." 

 

     "I can sit with you," Shen offered, following her out to the apartment's small dining room. Lee Sin was already seated at the dining room table, and he perked up when he heard Shen and Akali's footsteps. 

 

    "Are you joining us?" Lee asked, sounding genuinely excited.

    

     Shen nearly nodded but caught himself. "Uh, yeah. I'm just gonna sit with you, though." 

 

    Lee Sin was seemingly satisfied with this answer. Akali, apparently, was not. She went over to the pan on the stove and ladled out some of the meat and rice onto a plate, which she set in front of Shen. 

 

    Despite how hungry he was, the smell was nearly nauseating. Shen politely nudged the plate away from himself and asked, "What is this for?" 

 

    Akali looked at him like the answer was obvious. "It's dinner," she said as she plated her own food. "You have to eat." 

 

    Internally, Shen sighed. He didn't know much about Akali's childhood but knew that forced religion or tradition or something had played a role in it, and now she was vehemently opposed to most forms of practiced, organized faith. It was something that Shen didn't totally understand nor agree with, but he could live with it. He and Akali got along about most other things, and they enjoyed spending time together. But she had made her stance about Shen's religion clear; she didn't respect nor understand it, and was more than happy to challenge Shen about it. 

 

    Shen was hungry and tired and really didn't want to deal with this tonight, but it was fine. Whatever. He plastered on a smile and gently reminded Akali, "I'm fasting today. For Uposatha." 

 

    "You're still doing all of that?" Akali asked, sounding incredulous. That confused Shen; had he done something to imply he had stopped doing 'all of that', or that he intended to? As far as he was concerned, apostasy was not in the cards. Shen was about to ask for clarification when Akali sat down on the other side of the table and continued to speak. "I don't get it. Doesn't that make you feel, like, suppressed? You're literally starving yourself. How is that holy? How does that make you reach enlightenment?"

 

    "Akali, c'mon, let's just eat," Lee pleaded, his brow creased in concern. 

 

    Had her questions been genuine, Shen would have been more than happy to explain the purpose of upavasa. But they weren't; they were challenges, unspoken dares to engage. Shen knew better than to take the bait. It wasn't worth time nor energy, especially not on a day where he was meant to be more deeply saturated in his vows than most. "Akali, I'm really not-" 

 

    "No, I don't fuckin' get it. Why would you bother now that your dad isn't making you? Seriously, you're twenty and you've never had meat or alcohol or had se-" 

 

    Shen stood up abruptly, stepping away from the table and pushing his chair in. He gave Akali a faux-cheery smile and said, "I'm really glad you feel comfortable enough to share your thoughts about my faith with me, but I have some other stuff to be focusing on. I hope you enjoy your dinner." 

 

    He was vaguely aware of both Lee and Akali speaking, maybe to him, as he turned his back and walked to his bedroom, but Shen tuned it out. He couldn't bear to hear whatever they were saying. 

 

    --

 

    Akali was aware that what she was doing wasn't right, but she meant the best for Shen. She cared about him, and she hated seeing him torture himself like this. Although she didn't like to talk about it, Akali knew when a person was simply going through the motions of their religious practices. She knew Shen's meditations and prayers were hollow, and that he could no longer find fulfillment in his faith like he used to. And she was worried that it was doing him more harm than good. 

 

    Still, as she watched pain and sorrow flash through Shen's eyes when she mentioned his dad, Akali knew she had made a mistake by taking this angle. It was too late to correct, though, at least in that moment. Akali had stood up to follow Shen when he turned to leave, but Lee Sin had heard the chair scraping across the floor as she stood and made a rapid "sit back down" gesture. 

 

    Once they both heard the click of his door closing, Lee frowned in Akali's general direction. "You shouldn't have said any of that." 

 

    "I know, but I-"

 

    "I know you want to help, Akali, but this isn't the way to do it. You can't force him to make a decision or enter a conversation he isn't ready for. Shen has to figure this own on his own time." Lee sighed, dragging his chopsticks through the leftover sauce on his plate. Akali's own plate was still full, but her appetite was gone. 

 

    Lee was quiet for a moment before continuing. "And no matter what your intentions are, or whatever master plan you're hoping to enact, it's not your place to speak like that. Bullying Shen about his decision to fast won't help you feel better about your own experiences with religion." 

 

    Akali's cheeks flushed with shame. She knew Lee Sin was right. "I should apologize," she said after a moment of silence. 

 

    Lee Sin nodded, dragging his fingertips over the tabletop until they came into contact with Shen's abandoned plate. Keeping his fingers against the edge so he knew where it was, Lee stole a couple pieces of beef from it. "You should," he agreed. "But not right now. Give him some time." 

 

    --

 

    For the next hour, Shen stared at his laptop screen and managed to write the first two sentences of his report. He wasn't even aware of how much time had passed until his laptop made a musical noise, informing him that he needed to plug it in if he wanted to keep staring mindlessly at it. Shen just closed the device, knowing it was pointless to attempt writing. His mind was too crowded.

 

    Akali's words stung on a variety of levels. Ever since he had moved to America for the second time, Shen had always been self-conscious about his lack of, well, experience with certain things. Sometimes people were intrigued when he mentioned he was a Buddhist, but they tended to look at him like he'd grown a second head when he explained some of the restrictions it imposed. Like no drinking, drugs, or sex. People especially got hung up about that last one. Didn't guys love sex, after all? And surely with Shen's height and build, weren't girls all over him? What about kids? Surely he didn't plan to be celibate forever, right? 

 

    That was only the most superficial level of injury that Akali's words had caused, though. Shen had kept all his questioning and uncertainly shoved into the back of his mind, promising himself that he would thoroughly examine it later. He knew he was lying to himself, but with so much recent change in his life, he couldn't bear to add more uncertainty. Shen's faith had always been a pillar, a sturdy foundation he could always fall back on. Even when everything went to shit, he knew he could rely on meditation and scripture to calm his mind and heart. He could simply remember the bigger picture, his eventual goal of being spiritually enlightened, and that perspective would help him move past whatever roadblock was in his way. 

 

    But that hadn't worked as of late. More and more, Shen had been wondering how much of it was true. He had been raised Buddhist after all- he'd never had the luxury of deciding what he believed for himself. It had been decided for him. What if his wasn't what he really wanted? What if all this time, Shen had just been some brainwashed fool moving through motions he couldn't even know to be true and real? 

 

    It made his heart ache to think about. It made panic stir inside of him. What else was he, besides Buddhist? 

 

    Shen had gone to America and enrolled in college with the intention of answering that question. When he was leaving the monastery, having crossed the Chinese border to find an ATM and store to buy enough necessities to get him through his first month in America, that question had felt exciting. Leaving had felt bittersweet, but necessary, and almost empowering. He had felt like the world was now at his fingertips. There was nobody telling Shen what to do, or expecting anything of him. 

 

    And now, after a few months? That question terrified him. 

 

    All of he sudden, he was struck by the realization of how alone he was. He could no longer ask the nuns and monks of the monastery for guidance, and meditation and prayer seemed out of the question. His very thoughts were treasonous; surely, it would be poison to the soul for him to meditate on them. But after Akali's inquisition, all the insecurities and questions that he had locked away were at the forefront of his mind, and he couldn't banish them. 

 

    He didn't know what to do or where to go for help. Shen couldn't ask his roommates, obviously, nor could he ask friends. They wouldn't know what to say. And he couldn't ask his father, because he had forcibly disowned himself by abandoning the monastery. 

 

    That last realization stung more than anything. When Shen and Kusho had first ventured to America on a long-term missionary trip when Shen was fourteen, the culture shock had been horrific. Shen had been nauseous from the overwhelming sights, noise, and smells of the city, and completely unable to understand anything spoken above elementary English. But even then, even before he had met Zed and began to acclimate, Shen's father had been by his side the whole time. He had made it bearable. 

 

    Now Shen didn't even have him. And he wished so badly, so innately, that he did. As childish as it was, Shen subconsciously wanted nothing more than to see his dad again and ask him for advice- for reassurance that everything would work out, and that even though Shen felt lost and confused, he wasn't doomed to spiritual depravity. 

 

     But that would never happen. Shen was alone. And that hurt. 

 

    Shen buried his face in his hands, giving up on his attempts to hold back tears. At least he still had some privacy, and nobody here was going to judge him for crying. Because he was alone. There was nobody to judge him. 

 

    Time passed without meaning, and eventually Shen ran out of tears and decided to call it quits for the night. He hadn't brushed his teeth or washed his face, but Shen didn't want to venture out of his room to accomplish either of those tasks. He just wanted to sleep. 

 

    And of course, probably because of karma, someone knocked on Shen's door five minutes later. He laid there in silence, hoping it would deter whoever was knocking, but then Lee Sin said, "I know you're awake. Come open this, will you? I made tea." 

 

    Shen was allowed to drink tea, along with water, while fasting and it sure as hell sounded better than nothing. He rolled out of bed and made his way over to the door, weary that this might be an ambush, and that Akali might break in after using Lee as a decoy. He opened it a crack and saw Lee Sin holding two steaming mugs by their handles in one hand and using the other to follow the accessibility rails on their apartment's walls. No Akali in sight. 

 

    He sighed and opened the door fully, reaching out to take Lee's free hand so he could guide him over to the bed. Shen didn't say anything as he curled back up on top of the covers, and Lee didn't seem bothered by this. He just held one of the mugs out to Shen and smiled when he took it. 

 

    "It's jasmine. I know you prefer green but I think we're out right now," Lee said, leaning back against the wall that Shen's bed was tucked against. He took a long drink of his own tea, seemingly content to sit in silence for a bit. 

 

    Shen drank his own tea slowly, allowing the heat to soothe away the rawness in his throat, brought on by crying. He was nearly done with the drink when Lee spoke again. 

 

    "Akali regrets what she said." 

 

    Shen didn't know what to say in response to that. His body felt drained, and even speaking felt like a monumental effort. So he remained silent. 

 

    Lee pressed on. "I know you're probably feeling pretty shitty right now, and I can't blame you for that. Just know that we're here for you, okay? You don't have to feel alone in your own house. Akali cares about you and she wants what's best for you." He leaned in a bit closer, like he was telling a secret. "She won't admit it to you, Shen, but she thinks of you like an older brother. She can be a bitch sometimes, but her heart is in the right place." 

 

    Shen sniffled and dragged a hand under his eyes, which were damp again. "Thank you," he murmured, staring down at his mug. 

 

    Lee Sin nodded, draining the rest of the tea from his mug. He opened an arm to Shen and said, "Alright, I'll leave you alone now. Bring it in first, though." 

 

    Shen couldn't help but smile. He set his mug down on his desk and leaned forward to hug Lee Sin. Lee was a tactile person by nature and necessity, but this seemed to be more for Shen's benefit. He couldn't complain, though. Nearly four years of isolation at the monastery had left him a bit...hungry for affection. 

    

    Lee hugged Shen close for a moment before pulling away, still leaving his free hand on Shen's arm. "Would you mind helping me out? I left my cane in the living room," he explained with a sheepish grin. 

 

    Shen stood up with Lee and guided him back out. Just as Shen was about to slip back into his room, Lee Sin said, "Oh, by the way, Akali went out to grab some groceries. In case you were wondering."

 

    That brought Shen a tiny amount of relief, knowing he had a window of time to move freely about the apartment without running into Akali and potentially reigniting this whole thing. One detail didn't line up, though. "Didn't we just go grocery shopping?" 

 

    Lee grabbed his cane and moved it in a slow arc in front of him, reorienting himself. There was a sly grin on his face. "Yeah, but she forgot some stuff. Don't worry about it." 

 

    Shen took his advice and decided not to dwell on the matter. He went to the bathroom to brush his teeth and wash his face, then properly retired for the night. The majority of his homework was incomplete, but it didn't matter, since the only class he had the next day was a four o'clock. He would have plenty of time to wrap his assignments up before then. Everything could wait for tomorrow. 

 

    --

 

    Tomorrow came, as many things recently had, with a knock on Shen's bedroom door. Shen normally woke up early to meditate or pray, but he had decided to sleep in- not that the decision seemed to matter much now. 

 

    "Hey, Shen, wake up. I made something for you."

 

    Shen was still half-asleep and took a moment to process what Akali meant. Made something? What, had she crafted an apology note? It took him a moment to realize that she probably meant food. Akali loved to cook, especially dishes that represented her Korean heritage. Knowing that, Shen figured whatever she had made was delicious, but likely contained something he wasn't allowed to have, so he could have to politely decline. 

 

    Or maybe not. Maybe he would make an exception. Surely a bit of garlic wouldn't send him straight to hell, right?

 

    He rolled out of bed and opened the door. Shen could smell something familiar cooking, but couldn't place it right away. "Morning, Akali." 

 

    "Morning." Akali seemed uncharacteristically nervous, shifting her weight from leg to leg. "You're not fasting anymore, right?" 

 

    "Nope." 

 

    She seemed a bit more relaxed upon hearing that. "Okay. Well, uhm, I made you food. As an apology for yesterday. I...was really out of line, and I know what I said was super hurtful." Akali seemed hesitant, almost shy as she spoke, and Shen couldn't help but feel a bit endeared. Akali clearly wasn't used to apologizing, but he appreciated it (and the prospective meal) nonetheless. 

 

    "It's alright. I'm gonna shower and get dressed, and then I'll come out and eat. Is that alright?" Akali nodded and padded back into the kitchen, and Shen ducked back into his room. Religious purposes aside, meditating for ten minutes in the morning was just a part of his routine, and he felt like he couldn't really start his day without it. 

 

    After Shen had gotten ready for the day, he went into the kitchen. Akali had been leaning against the counter, chatting with Lee Sin, but she immediately turned her attention to Shen when he walked in. She grabbed a bowl from the counter and removed the towel covering it, then presented it to Shen. "Here. I- um, I just googled the recipe, so it isn't anything special or anything, but..."

 

    Shen immediately recognized the contents of the bowl. "You made me guthuk?" He asked, surprised and delighted. It had been eons since he'd had actual Tibetan food. 

 

    Akali smiled, obviously pleased by his reaction. "I tried to, yeah. And it should be Buddha-approved. There's no garlic or onion, just radish, cilantro, and some other vegetable bullshit." 

 

    Shen was starving, but he set the bowl down for a moment and walked over to Akali, pulling her into a brief hug. "Thank you," he murmured. "I really appreciate this. How long did it take you?" 

 

    "A little over an hour," Akali replied, squeezing Shen for a moment before releasing him. She poured some into a bowl for herself as well. "Lee, do you want any?" 

 

    "I'll never turn down food," Lee replied with a smile. He seemed satisfied at the way things worked out, and Shen felt the same. Despite how horrible and alone he had felt the night before, he now couldn't keep a smile off of his face.

 

    Perhaps the reassurance that everything would work out in the end wouldn't come from his father or any of the monks or nuns that Shen grew up with. Perhaps he would have to seek it out on his own, or go without it and accept the possibility that maybe things wouldn't work out the way he had always planned. And that was alright. It had to be, since Shen didn't really have any other choice. And maybe he didn't need other choices. 

    

    He was still scared about the future, and still apprehensive to find out more about himself after thinking he knew all there was to know about himself for so many years. But now, sitting with his roommates and laughing and smiling with them over a bowl of guthuk, Shen no longer felt like he had to go on this journey alone. The help he needed may not come from the places he had expected, but that was alright. 

 

    All that mattered was that he wasn't alone. 

Chapter Text

One of the benefits of living close to a big city was the scale of the tourist attractions. Swain had grown up in a rural area several states away, and had never experienced some of the fun activities that a large city had to offer. As such, he was just as excited to go to the zoo as Cassiopeia was. He had proposed the outing while they were hanging out in between classes, and Cass had immediately agreed. Swain knew she loved animals, yeah, but her glee was nearly childlike, and it was absolutely adorable. Swain actually had to look away while she gushed about the various habitats she'd hoped to see, because her smile was just that blindingly beautiful. 

 

    Swain had actually never been to a real zoo. He had grown up near farms, been to a petting zoo once, and hung around several aviaries while being licensed in falconry, but that was it. He had no idea what to expect, and ended up asking some questions that were probably painfully obvious. Did zoos actually have polar bears? Wasn't that unethical? 

    

    Cass hadn't minded the questions at all, and had explained the ethics and logistics of keeping large and non-native animals in peaceful captivity. They chatted all the way up until their train arrived at the zoo. Despite his best efforts, Swain couldn't keep his jaw from dropping when he saw the place. The zoo was fucking massive! 

 

    It was a nudge and a giggle from Cass that broke the spell. "Impressive, isn't it?" 

 

    "Yeah, you could say that," Jericho replied, following her to the gates so they could scan their tickets. He was most excited to see the birds of prey, and Cass was looking forward to the reptile exhibit. She already had a game plan to cover as much ground as possible, and Jeri was happy to let her lead the way. 

 

    Once their tickets were checked in, Cassiopeia grabbed Jericho's hand to begin leading him in the proper direction. Jeri thanked the merciful god above that Cass didn't turn around until they had reached their first destination, because his whole face had lit up with a blush. He had planned to use this outing to properly ask Cass out, of course, but he didn't want to make things obvious before the moment was right. 

 

    As far as Jericho knew, Cassiopeia was as into him and he was into her. She responded to his flirtations with ones of her own, offering him coy little smiles and teasing remarks that nobody else got. She spent a considerable amount of time with him alone, too- and sure, that might mean that she just liked him as a friend. Jeri was mentally prepared for the possibility of rejection and had set up a whole "I understand and hope we can still be friends" spiel in his head, should the situation come to that. 

 

    "I think this place has gotten bigger since the last time Kat and I were here," Cassiopeia mused, snapping Jericho out of his thoughts. She had taken them to a large indoor exhibit. The inside was darkly lit, and the walls and floor were designed to mimic stony outcrops in a desert. Jeri thought Cas would let go of his hand, but she kept a gentle hold on it as they moved throughout the exhibit. 

 

    That is, until pictures became necessary. And they most certainly were. The lighting wasn't great for pictures, but even Jeri couldn't deny how adorable the porcupines were. One of them was dragging a toy of some sort around the exhibit and accidentally bumped into the wall of his enclosure, which made Cass giggle. "Do you think their quills actually hurt?" She mused as she took a picture of the animal. 

 

    Jericho had to think for a second. "Don't they usually shoot those at prey? I mean, I'm sure it wouldn't feel nice to be stuck with one of those." 

 

    Cass nodded, although he wasn't sure if it was in agreement or just acknowledgement. She tucked her phone back into her pocket and slipped her arm through Jeri's, walking with him to the next enclosure. As they watched cute little rodent mice scurry around their enclosure, Jeri again found himself thanking the higher powers that the exhibit's dim lighting made his blush fairly well concealed. 

 

    The rest of the desert enclosure featured spiny lizards, colorful snakes, and even an aviary with a few species of bat. That was especially interesting, and Jeri found himself leaning over the railing to get a peek at their oddly shaped noses and ears. One of the bats had a baby tucked under her wing and was licking its head, which was far too cute to resist filming and sending to the group chat. 

    

    The next exhibit was outdoors and featured big cats, most of which were lounging around in the sun. There were tigers lazily flicking their tails at the occasional fly, lions rolling around an empty pumpkin in their enclosure, and a mother caracal feeding its young. The animals were fun to watch, but more often than not, Jericho found his eyes trailing over to Cassiopeia. She was clearly enamored with all the various critters, her eyes often alight as she watched them move about. 

 

    It was absolutely adorable, and on a couple occasions, Jericho took a quick picture of her when she wasn't looking. She was, after all, far cuter than any desert lizard or big cat. 

 

    But even Cassiopeia's beauty wasn't enough to keep Jeri distracted when they reached the aviary. Jeri had always been interested in birds of prey- their powerful wings and razor-sharp talons made them interesting creatures for sure, but Jeri was more intrigued by their perseverance. Some birds of prey lived in brutal conditions, like desert cliffs or permafrosted tundras. They were small enough to be considered a meal by most creatures, but remained at the top of their food chains. And he knew from firsthand experience how intelligent and stubborn birds were. There was no forcing a bird to do something it didn't want to, and it took a special kind of patience, dedication, and understanding to train large birds to perform in shows and renaissance fairs. 

 

    The aviary was expansive, and Jeri was absolutely captivated by the beauty of each animal. There was a turkey vulture, a couple different kinds of owls, a  red-tailed hawk, and most impressive, a massive bald eagle. Its wingspan had to be close to seven feet, and it was clearly the alpha- the other birds gave it a wide berth. 

 

    There was an exhibit guide standing at an outpost near the aviary, handing out pamphlets and telling people all about the different kinds of birds and their habitats, diets, and hunting patterns. Once there was a lull in the amount of tourists chatting with the guide, Jeri struck up a conversation with her. Cass took several pictures and videos of the birds, even 'pspspspsp'ing at one of the smaller owls in an attempt to draw it closer, while Jeri talked with the guide about her experience with the birds. 

 

    Eventually, Jeri acknowledged the need to view other exhibits, even though he could have stood there and chatted about birds for hours. They moved onto the next exhibit, which featured massive pachyderms that left them both awed by the sheer size of the beasts. They also visited the tropics, the Australian exhibit, and, of course, the reptiles.

 

     The reptiles and amphibians ranged from tiny poison dart frogs to crocodiles- actual, real crocodiles. Jeri's first question upon seeing them was, "Don't the zookeepers have to feed those things? What if the crocs eat them?" 

 

     Cass laughed, leaning over to bump Jericho's shoulder with her own. "I'm sure there are safety procedures in place. And the zookeepers don't, like, hand-feed them or anything. Maybe they drop the food in somehow." 

 

     Jeri snorted at the mental image of a zookeeper nervously tossing a massive hunk of meat into the crocodile exhibit. "Sure. They probably use drones. Or tiny, tiny remote-operated cranes." 

 

     He couldn't help a smile from forming on his face when Cassiopeia laughed, even though his joke wasn't the funniest thing in the world. They spent more time in the reptile exhibit than they had anywhere else so far, including the aviary. Cass was obviously fascinated by the creatures, and had no issue with standing on tip-toe or kneeling down to get a better look at the critters. In the end, it was both of their growling stomachs that drew them away from the (admittedly very cool) snakes and lizards. 

 

    They headed over to the food court and paid for their ridiculously expensive lunches before finding a seat at one of the many picnic tables. Their conversation continued in between bites of food, and then in full swing once they were done eating. Cass nudged Jeri's foot with her own and asked, "So, is this living up to your expectations?"

 

    Jericho chuckled. "It's well exceeded them, actually. This place his huge," he replied. He wasn't even sure it was possible to see everything in just one visit, especially taking season attractions into account. "I'm a bit biased, but the aviary has been my favorite so far. What about you? You said you've come here with your sister before, is it any different?" 

 

    "Not really different, but it's just as fun each time," Cass explained. Jericho nodded, trying his best not to get distracted by how gorgeous Cass was. She had lined the inner corners of her eyes with a metallic gold liner that caught the light every time she blinked, and it brought out the flecks of amber in her brown eyes. Jericho found it impossible to look away. "Normally I would say the reptiles are my favorite, but the bats are pretty cool as well. Especially the little Honduran white ones. They look like cream puffs with wings!" 

    

    Jeri recalled the tiny white bats and nodded. They were certainly adorable- nowhere near as adorable as Cass, though. Their lunch eventually came to a close and Jericho realized this was his opportunity. He poked Cass' leg with his foot to get her attention and said, "Can I ask you about something?" 

 

    Her expression was hard to read, but Cass nodded anyway. "Yeah, go right ahead." 

 

    Jericho had planned out a whole mini-speech to give to Cass about his affections and desire to be in a relationship with her, but now that he was here in front of her, Jeri's mind completely blanked. Fuck, time to improv. "I know we haven't known each other a super long time, but I think you're a really cool person. You're funny and unique, and I love spending time with you. And...honestly, I've been crushing on you for a while, now. I don't want you to feel pressured to say yes, or say anything at all, and if you just want to be friends, I'm totally cool with that. But I was wondering...if you would like to date me?" 

 

    The concluding question came out a hair weaker than Jericho would have liked, but his nerves had gotten the better of his voice. Cass didn't seem to mind. A small but persistent smile had formed on her face while Jeri was talking, and once he was finished, she reached across the table and took his hand. "I would love to." 

 

    Jeri couldn't stop himself from grinning like an idiot. He squeezed her hand affectionately and tried to think of something to say- but all that came out was, "You mean it?" 

 

    Cass giggled, and it nearly made Jericho's heart explode. "Of course. I think you're a wonderful man, and I've had feelings for you for a while as well. My sister was actually- oh, fuck, my sister." Cass' face fell for a moment, and Jericho was about to ask what was wrong when she continued speaking- this time, a bit sheepishly. "I, uh, Kat kind of placed a bet with me that you were gonna ask me out by the end of the week." 

 

    Cassiopeia looked a bit embarrassed, like she was waiting for Jericho to scold her, but he honestly couldn't. He laughed, shaking his head. "Well, I hope you didn't lose too much money." 

 

    "Only ten bucks," Cass replied, still smiling. "So, is this our first official date?" 

 

    "I think so," Jericho mused. "And I think it's a damn impressive one, too. We still have, like, ten exhibits to move through, right?"

 

    "At least ten." Cass stood up, and Jeri did as well, gathering their trash and throwing it away. Cass linked hands with him again once they were back on the walking path, and even though they were now an official thing, Jeri still blushed at the affectionate contact. "What do you want to see next? The rainforest?" 

 

    "Anything you want," He replied, lifting Cass' hand to his mouth and placing a gentle kiss on the back of her knuckles. Cassiopeia turned bright red and giggled, bumping her hip into Jericho's. 

 

    "You're such a sap," She teased, although it was clear she was won over by the tiny kiss. Cass squeezed his hand again, and Jeri returned it. "Come on, we can kiss and cuddle all we want once the zoo closes. How about we check out some jaguars in the meantime?" 

 

    "Sounds good to me." And that would have been Jericho's response no matter what Cassiopeia suggested; anywhere Cass went, Jericho was planning on following. They were a team now, a unit; two halves of a recently constructed whole. Jericho felt like the luckiest man in the world as he toured the rest of the zoo with Cass. And as amazing as all the exhibits, all the unique creatures and stunning biomes were, there was nothing more intriguing or beautiful to Jericho than the girl standing next to him. 

Chapter Text

 "If he stares at you, it means he doesn't like you."

     "No, it means he's trying to assert his dominance," Kayn replied, not allowing Jhin's input to interrupt his staring contest with Rhaast. Rhaast was one of the campus cats, with the other being an elusive kitty Kayn had only spotted once or twice. Rhaast wandered the campus more often, but was arguably even less social. He had no problem lying down to sunbath in the middle of a sidewalk, or attacking someone's untied shoelaces, or even pawing at the door of the cafe to try to get in. But legend held it that nobody had ever successfully pet Rhaast without being scratched or bitten. 

    Zed was also leering at Rhaast, but the tabby was holding steadfast eye contact with Kayn alone. "I think it means he's planning to do something awful to you," Zed declared, flipping a page in his notebook. "Cats are already demonic to start with, and Rhaast looks like one as well." 

    Kayn momentarily looked away from Rhaast, who was sitting right outside the campus cafe's window, to give Zed a chastising look. "Hey, don't bully Rhaast. He can't help how he looks. Plus, cats are perfectly fine as long as you don't treat them like dogs." 

    Jhin nodded, humming a couple notes as he glanced out the window at Rhaast. "Oh, he's ugly, I'll give you that. But cats can be sweethearts." 

    "I'm a bit biased against them, since I'm allergic, but I've never met a cat who didn't hate people." Zed gestured out the window to Rhaast. "And he's not a great example of a cat that breaks the norm." 

    Kayn really couldn't disagree with either perspective. Rhaast was certainly no model kitten- he was actually quite large for an adult tabby. His fur was a mottled black-brown, with a few lighter chunks near his paws. He was missing a couple toes on his back left paw, along with a chunk of his right ear, and his tail had an odd crook in it no matter what position it was in. There were a couple lines of scar tissue on his back and legs where fur wouldn't grow. And, of course, there was his antisocial behavior. 

    He was a hideous, rude cat, and Kayn wanted nothing more than to pet him. 

    Jhin and Zed were both aware of this mission, and thought Kayn was a complete dunce for pursuing it. Jhin was at least polite about it, saying that he was concerned for Kayn's physical well-being since Rhaast was known to attack those attempting to pet him. Zed simply maintained his stance that all cats were inherently evil. 

    They had come to the cafe with the intention of finishing their first round of post-winter-break homework, but Kayn had immediately been distracted by the yellow gaze of Rhaast. "I bet if you pet him at just the right spot, he won't bite," Kayn hypothesized. One of the foster homes he'd lived in had an old Siamese cat who had taken nearly three months to warm up to Kayn, but eventually became his closest friend there. Maybe Rhaast would be similar. 

    "I doubt it. People have lost fingers to that beast," Jhin said, tapping the eraser of his pencil against his chin as he gazed at his sketchbook with deep contemplation. Kayn, who was as artistically gifted as the average Canadian goose, thought the anatomy study Jhin was working on looked great, but he knew Jhin was too much of a perfectionist to settle for just 'great'. "And he's more of an outdoor cat, right? So I doubt luring him with food or treats would work." 

    Kayn nodded. Rhaast certainly looked like an outdoor cat, and his lack of collar solidified that. "I think his owner lives somewhere nearby, since we always see him hanging around campus. But he definitely seems like an outdoor kitty."

    "And that's a blessing for his owner, I bet. Look at how much fur he has- I bet his shedding is absolutely nightmarish in the spring. Just imagine trying to clean that off of furniture."

    Zed shuddered outwardly for a moment. "Just thinking about that much fur makes my face itch," he muttered, nose crinkling adorably as he spoke. Kayn wanted to reach out and boop the tip of Zed's nose, just for fun, but he knew better than to try that. His relationship with Zed was still in the "friend of a friend" zone, but they were slowly growing closer independent of Jhin and Rakan. And despite how enamored he was, Kayn knew better than to try to rush something between them. Come to think of it, Kayn's tactics for trying to get close to Rhaast weren't too unlike his tactics for befriending Zed. 

    The thought made him chuckle a bit. Beneath the table, Kayn nudged Zed's foot with his own and said, "I don't know why you wouldn't like cats, given that you're so much like one yourself." 
    
    Zed gave Kayn a foul look (with no real venom behind it, Kayn could tell), and Jhin laughed. "Kayn isn't wrong," Jhin conceded, poking Zed's arm with his pencil and earning a glare in his direction. "You're rude and temperamental on the surface, but you'll give affection to those close to you."   

    "I don't give affection to anyone," Zed snapped, swatting Jhin's hand away when he attempted to ruffle Zed's hair. 

    Jhin scoffed and shook his head, prodding Zed with his pencil again. "That's bullshit and you know it." He gave Kayn a knowing grin and said, "Seriously, all he needs is a little tequila in his system, and he'll be draping himself all over people. Even when he's sober sometimes- oh, you should have seen the way he used to cuddle up with S-" Jhin was cut off by Zed clapping a hand over his mouth after finally bypassing Jhin's defensive pencil jabs. Jhin's eyes were full of teasing mirth, and Zed looked like he was ready to commit a murder. 

    Kayn couldn't help but laugh at the idea of Zed cuddling with anyone at all. He certainly didn't seem like a cuddly person, just the way Rhaast didn't look like a cuddly cat. The thought prompted Kayn to look back out the window. Rhaast had disappeared. "Aww, where'd he go?"

    "Probably back to hell, to drop off the innocent souls he's collected lately," Zed hypothesized. His hand was still clamped over Jhin's mouth, although he yanked it away a second later, disgust painted all over his face. "You gross fucker, did you lick me?" 

    "You should know better than to keep your hand over someone's mouth for that long," Jhin said. Kayn gave an absentminded nod of agreement, but his focus was elsewhere. His opportunity in that moment may have past, but he was still determined to pet Rhaast before the end of the year. 

    --

    Rhaast could frequently spotted outside of the university library- particularly, lying right in front of the entrance and forcing students to walk around him. It wasn't the most convenient place to attempt to pet the cat, but it was late enough at night that nobody would be around to watch Kayn. 

    Kayn had a game plan. Step one: approach cat slowly. 

    The tabby leered at Kayn through narrowed eyes, tail flicking back and forth as he sat cross-legged on the concrete step in front of the library. It was cold as hell, but Rhaast didn't seem the least bit bothered by the weather. Kayn certainly was, despite the hat and scarf he was wearing, but he understood that this was a crucial phase in his plan. Rhaast had to get used to Kayn's general presence. 

    Kayn's stare-down with Rhaast in the cafe hadn't ended especially well, and Cassiopeia (resident animal expert) had later told him that cats preferred indirect eye contact, so Kayn made sure to not look directly at Rhaast. He pulled his phone out and scrolled through twitter for a while, occasionally peeking at Rhaast out of the corner of his eyes. Rhaast hadn't taken his gaze off of Kayn, but hadn't moved away from him either. 

    Alright, cat had been approached and did not seem to directly oppose Kayn's presence. Step two: close distance between self and cat.

     Kayn moved a bit closer to Rhaast. His tail, which had previously stilled, began flicking back and forth again. Kayn wasn't sure if this was a good sign or not. Maybe it was a warning sign...or maybe it was an invitation to move closer. Knowing the kind of cat Rhaast was, Kayn wasn't particularly inclined to believe it was the first option. He stayed where he was. 

     Another ten minutes passed before Rhaast's threatening tail-swishing ceased, and Kayn repeated the move-closer-and-wait pattern twice, until there were just a few inches between himself and Rhaast. 

     Now was his chance!

     Still not looking at Rhaast, Kayn slowly extended his open hand towards the cat. He peeked out of the corner of his eye- just in time to see Rhaast's paw getting ready to swipe. Kayn yanked his hand back to his side, and Rhaast's paw collided with empty air. The cat didn't seem pleased with this outcome and stood up, stretching before moving a few paces away from Kayn and lying down again. 

     Despite having narrowly avoided an attack and little more, Kayn was happy with what he accomplished. Rhaast probably needed a slow acclimation to people, and most students probably weren't willing to give that. Kayn had more patience than that, though. He didn't mind just sitting in silence and letting Rhaast get used to him, just as he was getting used to Rhaast. 

--

     For four days, Kayn returned to the step of the library and sat a couple feet away from Rhaast. For four days, Rhaast would watch as Kayn moved closer to him in tiny increments. And for four days, Kayn would narrowly dodge a swat from Rhaast's paws. 

     The fifth day was different, though. Kayn wasn't sure what it was, but Rhaast seemed more tolerant today. He wasn't whipping his tail back and forth, nor was he leering at Kayn. Most notably, though, when Kayn extended his hand towards the cat, Rhaast didn't swipe at him. 

     This delighted Kayn immensely. Progress was being made! Rhaast didn't seem particularly interested in Kayn's extended hand, so Kayn moved it just a few centimeters closer to Rhaast. His tail began swishing in a gesture of warning. Kayn knew he was pushing it, and decided to pack up for the night, so to speak. 
    
     He shoved the script he had been highlighting back into his backpack and turned towards Rhaast before leaving. "Everyone says you're a demon, but I really don't think you're that bad." 

     Rhaast blinked slowly at Kayn. Kayn figured it must have meant something and returned the gesture, then went back to his dorm for the evening. 

--

     "I've gotten through the first two phases of my plan," Kayn informed Jhin and Zed as they walked to their first preliminary rehearsal. All the cast members had received their scripts before winter break and were meant to use the four-week break to begin learning their lines. Kayn had done his best, but most of his script-work had involved actually reading chunks of Les Mis and researching exactly what the hell was going on. He conceded that the music was wonderful, and he was sure the plot made perfect sense to people who already knew what was going on. But for Kayn, it had been largely a confusing jumble of names and years. 

     Hopefully that would all be sorted out during the sing-throughs, though. Jhin had explained that the first portion of rehearsals involved everyone in the cast gathering in the performing art center's chorus room and singing through piece-by-piece while taking musical instruction from Rakan, Zed, and the other direction (whose name may or may not have slipped Kayn's mind). Then, once everyone had the music down, blocking and dancing would begin. Blocking, Kayn had been told, was a fancy name for standing and walking places on stage. Finally, everything would come together with set pieces, costumes, lighting, and the actual orchestra playing through the show, instead of just Zed and Jhin alternating on the piano. 

     Kayn was more excited than he anticipated being. Even after being cast and given a script, it hadn't totally set in that he was a lead role in a musical production for the school. Now that he was actually going to a rehearsal, it felt much more real, and Kayn couldn't wait. 

     "And what exactly have those phases been?" Jhin asked, tactfully stepping past a frozen puddle on the sidewalk.

     "Getting him used to my presence." 

     Zed scoffed. "And how exactly is that helping you pet him?" 

     "He needs to be used to my scent and stuff, so that I'm familiar? I mean, how would you feel if some random person came up to you and tried to hug you? It's kinda like that with Rhaast. He probably doesn't want to be pet by random people. But if he knows me, he won't mind," Kayn hypothesized. Jhin sighed in equal parts fondness and exasperation at the end of his explanation. 

     Zed had a look on his face like he wanted to tell Kayn how stupid his plan was, but knew it wouldn't make the slightest amount of difference. So he instead asked, "And what is the third phase?" 

     "Actually petting him- come on, don't look at me like that! It's possible." 

     "Sure, sure." 

     Kayn followed Zed and Jhin through the fine arts building into one of the chorus rooms. He had never actually been in there before, and he was impressed by the size of it. There were stacks of chairs along the back wall, and a massive mirror covered the wall at the front of the room. There was a piano near the front of the room with various towers of paper sitting on the bench. Zed began rummaging through those while Jhin and Kayn gathered the group of students milling about. 

     Kayn naturally hung around Jhin, since he didn't know anyone else, but his attention was soon caught by a familiar set of yellow eyes peering at him through one of the windows. It was Rhaast, who had leapt up onto a trash can positioned near the window and used that as a jumping point to reach the windowsill. He was watching Kayn curiously, tail curved over his back. 

     Jhin noticed the cat as well and chuckled, nudging Kayn. "Is he following you around now?"

     "It would appear so," Kayn said, padding over to the window. Rhaast watched him for a moment, but the moment was broken by the sound of Zed whistling sharply to get everyone's attention. Rhaast leapt off the windowsill and scampered away, glancing back at Kayn before disappearing. Kayn offered the cat a tiny wave of goodbye before turning his attention to role call. 

--

     Rhaast was waiting for Kayn outside the fine art building when he and Jhin left, with Zed having stayed behind to sort out a couple minor schedule conflicts with other cast members. Kayn grinned and waved at Rhaast, ignoring the look Jhin was giving him. 

     "You know he can't wave back to you, right?"

     "He's waving spiritually. I can feel it," Kayn asserted, walking over to Rhaast. Despite Jhin's proximity, Rhaast didn't scamper away or hiss. He just watched with narrowed eyes as Kayn knelt down next to him and extended one hand. 

     Jhin tried not to act intrigued as Rhaast carefully sniffed Kayn's hand before resuming his disinterested staring. Kayn, both emboldened by Rhaast's initial interest and deterred by his lack of action, decided to make a bold move- reach out and try to pet the underside of Rhaast's chin. If there was anything that living with cats had taught him, it was that cats loved to be scratched right under the chin. 

     Or so he had thought. 

     Before Kayn was aware that Rhaast had even moved, his teeth were sunk a fourth of an inch deep into Kayn's hand. Kayn yelped and reflexively yanked his hand away while Rhaast watched him, almost to assess how Kayn would react. 

     His hand now featured two puncture wounds, almost like a fucking vampire had bit him, both bleeding rather profusely for how small they were. And they fucking stung, too. Kayn huffed a sigh and glared at Rhaast, who flicked his tail. "What happened to just swatting at me, huh? You couldn't have stuck with that?" 

     "I think that's cat-speak for leave me alone," Jhin said, walking over to Kayn and effectively scaring Rhaast off. He raised a brow when he saw the state of Kayn's hand, which was now dripping blood onto the grass. "Jesus. You've been vaccinated for rabies, right?"

     "He's not rabid," Kayn protested as Jhin helped him up. "He's just a bitch, apparently. Which doesn't bother me," he amended rapidly. "Given that I'm friends with both you and Zed." 

     "I'll pretend I'm not deeply insulted by that, if only because you're injured," Jhin responded. A second later, a dangerous glint appeared in his eyes. "Speaking of Zed, though- you two have been getting along rather nicely, haven't you? Zed normally doesn't take to people as well as he did to you." Kayn's face heated up with a blush, and he was about to respond to Jhin's comments with he pressed on. "Don't think I didn't notice you stealing glances at his ass during rehearsal- or at Shen, for that matter." 

     If Kayn's face had been warm before, it was now hot enough to cook an egg. "What can I say?" He replied with nonchalance he didn't actually feel. "Your ex is kinda hot." 

     That was a grand understatement on Kayn's part. He had always favored tall, muscular men (hence his attraction to Zed), and Shen was built like a brick shithouse. He was an inch or two shorter than Jhin, who towered over everyone, but he was toned as hell. And his voice was something to be admired as well. 

     "I think you just have a thing for guys who look like they could beat the shit out of you."

     Kayn snorted. "You certainly aren't wrong." 

     Jhin insisted on walking Kayn to the campus wellness center, where a nurse wrapped his hand up and advised against trying to pet Rhaast again. Already, though, Kayn was mentally planning his next encounter with Rhaast. Kayn was nothing if not persistent in pursuing what he wanted- and dammit, he wanted to pet that ugly cat. 

--

     The next time Kayn encountered Rhaast, it was on his way back from his last afternoon class the following day. Rhaast had been lingering outside the café, roughly in the same spot that Kayn had seen him the first time. He watching Kayn closely, and as Kayn approached the café, Rhaast padded over to him and circled his ankles a couple times. 

     Kayn wasn't entirely sure what this meant. Maybe Rhaast just wanted to go inside the café? It was technically against the rules, but he usually found a way to sneak in when he wanted to. Kayn opened the door, giving Rhaast plenty of room to go in, but the cat remained firmly planted at Kayn's feet. 

     "Are you trying to apologize to me?" Kayn asked, letting the door close and stepping aside so people could still get in and out of the building. He pushed back the sleeve of his jacket, revealing his bandaged hand. "You took a fuckin' chunk out of me, you know." 

     Kayn knelt down again and extended the same hand to Rhaast. The tabby sniffed the bandages experimentally, and then- to Kayn's absolute astonishment- licked the very edge of the bandage, like a silent apology.

     Kayn couldn't have wiped the dumb grin off his face if he had tried. "I forgive you," He said, settling down next to Rhaast. Rhaast took a couple experimental steps towards Kayn before sitting down as well. "I still want to pet you, y'know." 

     Rhaast blinked at Kayn. 

     Cas had told him that the slow blinking meant Rhaast liked Kayn. That in and of itself was a massive accomplishment- who knew that it would only take a couple weeks for the alleged demon-cat to actually become fond of someone? The accuracy of that statement was to be debated, since Rhaast had practically mauled Kayn the day before, but that wasn't enough to deter Kayn from possibly befriending the cat. 
     
     "Will you bite me if I try to pet you?" Kayn asked, giving Rhaast a critical look. 

     Again, Rhaast just blinked at him. Kayn took this as a reassurance that Rhaast wouldn't try to take any fingers off and reached out slowly, mentally prepared to rip his hand back at the first sign of danger. 

     There was no danger this time, though. Kayn's fingertips made contact with the underside of Rhaast's chin, and he slowly began to rub the area. 

     Rhaast's eyes drifted shut for a moment, then opened again. Emboldened by the lack of resistance, Kayn shifted the angle of his wrist so he could actually get a few firm scratches in as he pet Rhaast. After a few moments, the tabby actually began to purr. Kayn could have fucking cheered, but knew that would disturb the moment. He just smiled and continued petting Rhaast. 

     Eventually, Rhaast must have gotten bored or hungry, because he padded back over to the cafe's door and began pawing at it, demanding entry. Kayn sighed, pulling the sleeve of his jacket back down over his hand. "You know you're not allowed in there, right?" 

     Rhaast flicked his tail teasingly. Kayn stood up and, after a moment of contemplation, opened the door for the cat and walked in after him. The café was empty enough that nobody immediately reprimanded Kayn for letting Rhaast inside, so he bought a drink and settled down to continue memorizing his lines. 

     Rhaast paced around the building for a few minutes, then eventually settled down at Kayn's feet. An employee poked her head around the corner and eyed Rhaast wearily, but she seemed to not mind his presence so long as he wasn't causing any trouble. 

     After a couple hours, Kayn packed up and was about to head back to his dorm. Rhaast had fallen asleep beneath the table, and Kayn quickly knelt down to give him a scratch behind the ears (and take a picture) before leaving. Rhaast opened one eye and lazily flicked his tail at Kayn. Kayn smiled and waved as well. 


[Private Chat: virtuoso, deathmark, shadowreaper]

shadowreaper: [image attached]

shadowreaper: I DID IT LADS I PET THE DEMON CAT 

virtuoso: i'll be damned, I didn't know he was capable of receiving affection 

deathmark: You actually put your hand near that thing after it bit you? 

shadowreaper: his name is Rhaast and yes I did, bc he is Babey once you get to know him

virtuoso: you should give it a try, zed. maybe you and rhaast will get along since you have such similar demeanors

deathmark: I think I would rather die, but thanks for the input. 

virtuoso: anytime, love 

shadowreaper: :)  

Chapter Text

   They were officially underway with the rehearsal phase of Les Miserables, and Zed was exhausted. Between normal studying, being at four-hour rehearsals each and every day, and cramming for his organic chemistry final, it felt like years since Zed had gotten a proper night's sleep. Of course, all of this was compounded by his usual insomnia. Smoking usually helped him relax enough to fall asleep, but recently, no amount of THC was helping him at night. So he just resigned himself to drinking absurd amounts of coffee and taking cat naps where and when he could. 

    Like now, for example. Their dance choreographer Irelia was working on the dance for Master of the House with the chorus members, which means Zed, Rakan, and some other lead characters were shooed off the stage. Zed immediately headed to the men's dressing room and shoved four folding chairs together to drape himself over. He laid an arm over his eyes, imagining he was somewhere more comfortable. Like a bed. Or a couch. Or literally anywhere but a dressing room, lying on a row of folding chairs. Maybe lying on the makeup counter would be more comfortable...no, too close to the lights. He would have to settle. 

    Shen was already in the dressing room, opting to sit on the floor for some reason unknown to Zed. He had his back against the wall and his backpack next to him, and he had been working on something when Zed came in. Things had smoothed over considerably since Shen, Zed, and Jhin all confronted each other about Zed's choice to out Shen. Their friendship had repaired itself with near immediacy, as if they never truly stopped being friends in the first place. Of course, Zed placed all of this on Shen's endlessly forgiving, selfless nature. And he imagined it was that same nature that prompted Shen to say, "That doesn't look very comfortable." 

    Zed couldn't disagree. Already, his back was protesting the flat, cold material. He sighed and tried to shift onto his side, and nearly fell off the chairs. "It isn't."

    He heard Shen chuckle, and then say, "Come here." 

    "Hm?" Zed lifted his arm off of his eyes. 

    "Come here." Shen gestured to the space on next to him, and Zed immediately wrinkled his nose. 

    "On the fuckin' floor? Yeah, no, I'm good." He tried once more to turn over, but miscalculated and ended up slipping off of the chairs entirely. 

    Shen laughed, undoubtedly shaking his head as Zed groaned and sat up, shoving one of the traitorous folding chairs aside. "It seems you're on the floor anyway. May as well join me, right?" 

    Zed weighed the pros and cons of Shen's implicit offer to cuddle up to him. Pros: Shen was way more comfortable than the folding chairs or the floor, and way warmer. Plus, Shen was touch-starved as hell and would probably appreciate it. Cons: Zed really couldn't think of any. He was way past the stage of thinking that platonic cuddling somehow made him less of a man, and even if it did, dammit, he was tired and cold. Zed sighed and trudged over to Shen, curling up next to him and laying his head on his shoulder.  

    "Still think you'd prefer the folding chairs?" Shen asked teasingly, wrapping an arm around Zed. He picked his pencil up again and continued working on something that Zed couldn't understand. It was a jumble of numbers and equations, along with notes in a strange combination of English and དབུས་. Zed knew that Shen usually was thinking in a couple different languages, having grown up speaking two concurrently and learning a third and fourth soon after, and his writing reflected that. And even though Zed spoke half of the languages in Shen's notes, he had no fucking idea what was happening on the page. 

    "What class is this for?" 

    "O-Chem." 

     That made Zed groan, because it reminded him of the ninety-point lab report he was meant to be working on. Shen chuckled a bit and nudged Zed with his elbow. "Come on, it's not that bad. We're in the same unit, aren't we? I can explain this to you if you're not getting it." 

    "Go ahead, it'll bore me to sleep," Zed grumbled. Shen just laughed again and held Zed a bit closer. With the warmth of Shen at his side and the white-noise like effect of his pencil scratching across the surface of the notebook paper, Zed finally felt relaxed enough to fall asleep. 

    And, of course, right as he was about to doze off, Shen tapped his arm twice. 

    Zed groaned, leaning further into Shen. "Fuck off, 'm sleeping," he mumbled, eyes still closed. 

    "Let up me up for a second." 

    "Nope. I'm comfortable here."  
   
     "I'm bleeding, man. Let me up so I can grab some Kleenex." 

    Zed made a disgruntled noise but complied, sitting up enough that Shen could stand up. He yawned and tipped his head back against the wall, waiting for Shen to return. 

    And he did a minute later, holding a roll of paper towels in one hand and using the other to pinch a fistful of tissues over his nose. Already, Zed could see red soaking the tissue paper. Neither of them were particularly bothered by it- Shen had always been prone to nosebleeds. He sat back down next to Zed, roll of paper towels lying next to him, and let Zed lean into him again. 

    This time, Zed was able to fall asleep. He woke up to the sound of the dressing room door opening, and slowly registered Khada walking in, looking frazzled and distinctly put-off. "These idiots can't dance for shit," he complained, pulling the elastic out of his hair and running a hand through it to tame it. "Irelia's been going over the same twenty-four beats for forty-five minutes now and they aren't getting it."

    Zed muffled a yawn into his hand. "Not everyone was born with innate dance skills, Khada. And half of the chorus is freshmen. Cut them some slack." 

    "I've cut them plenty," Khada muttered but relented, pulling his hair back into a tight, neat ponytail. Zed closed his eyes again, still feeling exhausted, but opened them again when Khada said, "Jesus, how much have you been bleeding?" 

    "More than I would like to be," Shen replied. Zed glanced over and sure enough, there was a pile of bloodied paper towels next to Shen. He still had a couple pinched around his nose, and Zed could see blood staining his fingertips. He frowned and sat up so Shen could move, eyes still locked on the blood-soaked paper towels.

    "You could have woken me up," Zed said as Shen used his newfound freedom to throw the blood-soaked paper towels away. "Did it stop at all? Or get any lighter?" 

    "You looked way too relaxed for me to wake you up. And no, it hasn't." Shen folded the paper towels in his hand over, trying to find a dry patch, and blood immediately began running down his face. He sighed, burying his face in them again. "It's been this way for an hour now." 

    Khada frowned. "Aren't you meant to go to a hospital if it hasn't stopped after, like, twenty minutes?" 

    "Yeah, but this isn't too abnormal for me. I'm sure it'll stop soon." 

    It didn't. Irelia eventually called it quits with the choreography and separated the chorus members who could actually dance, bringing them to the front of the stage, while those who couldn't would stand at the back and perform a simple box-step while they sang. Shen wasn't needed on stage while they ran Master of the House, so he stuck to the edges of the auditorium and watched along with everyone else who wasn't in the scene. Zed, despite Shen's protests, hovered and continually asked if he was alright. 

    "Zed, it's a nosebleed. I'm not hemorrhaging to death. Relax," Shen had instructed, and Zed had tried his best. He couldn't help but feel worried, though, especially when rehearsal finally came to a close (half an hour later) and Shen was still bleeding. 

    More than that, though, he looked pale and disoriented. That was motivation enough for Zed to all but drag Shen to his car, shoving him in the passenger seat and firmly declaring, "Alright, we're going to the hospital."

     "Come on, this isn't necessary," Shen insisted. "Seriously, ER nurses are already overworked and I'm sure there are people who need the care more-"

     "Holy fuck, Shen, please think of yourself for once," Zed all but pleaded as he got into the driver's seat. This was the downside of Shen's limitless magnanimity; he was so eager to place others' needs in front of his own that he sometimes neglected caring for himself. Shen sighed and tried a new angle.  

    "This is overkill. You're gonna have me sit in a waiting room for three hours just for them to give me some gauze and send me home with a sixteen-hundred dollar fee," Shen complained, trying to buckle himself in with one hand. He managed after a moment and leaned back in his seat, looking as exhausted as Zed had felt earlier. 

    Zed honestly couldn't say that Shen was wrong. What did hospitals do for endlessly bloody noses, anyway? Was there some sort of medication? A shot? Would they just tell Shen to keep his head between his knees and try not to swallow any blood? Did Shen have health insurance? Zed didn't know the answer to any of those questions, but they kept swirling around his head until Shen finally said, "dude, you're thinking so loudly that it's giving me a headache. Relax. I'm sure this isn't anything serious." 

    "Yeah, no, definitely, this is just one of those regular two-hour long nosebleeds that totally healthy people get," Zed muttered. His knuckles were white from how hard he was gripping the steering wheel, and he found himself glancing over at Shen every couple of seconds. He didn't understand how his friend was so nonchalant about this. 

    By some miracle, the emergency room waiting area was sparsely populated. The triage nurse predicted their wait to be around an hour (and graciously gave Shen a box of tissues, since blood was starting to pool in his palm from the soaked paper towels he was fruitlessly pinching over his nose). Zed had Shen sit down but found himself unable to do so. He was too anxious to keep still, much less sit silently in a chair. Shen didn't have the energy to tell him to stop pacing, it would seem. 

    Only forty-five minutes later, Shen was called back into an examination room. For the next forty minutes, Zed paced the length of the hallway outside the waiting room, finding there were fewer people to stare judgmentally at him. 

    When Shen came back out, he looked marginally better. He was no longer bleeding, although the skin around his nose was stained red from how long he had been. "What did the doctors say? Are you alright?" Zed asked immediately. 

    "I'm fine. They gave me a nasal spray that stopped the bleeding, along with an uncomfortable amount of gauze, and then an IV." Shen reached into the pocket of his hoodie, pulling out a couple of papers. "And a prescription for aminocaproic acid." 
    
    "Aminocaprowhat?"

    Shen began walking towards the exit with Zed. "It's mean to prevent excessive bleeding. I have to take this while I wait for the results of my blood test. The doctor thinks I have a clotting disorder, so they need to do a platelet count and some other stuff."

     Zed frowned as he got into the car, trying to recall where he had heard the phrase 'clotting disorder' before. "That's the thing where you can, like, bleed out from a papercut, right?" 

    Shen shrugged. "Hemophilia is. But there are other clotting disorders as well." Once they were in the car, Shen rolled up his sleeves and examined his arms. "Apparently that's why I bruise easily, too."

    Zed looked over and sure enough, there was a smattering of faint yellow-purple bruises scattered around Shen's arms, mostly around his wrists. There was a patch of gauze taped over his antecubital fossa from where the IV had been, and Zed had no doubt that would leave a killer bruise as well. "Do they hurt?"

     "Not really, they just look ugly. That, and the nosebleeds, have always happened for me. I just assumed it was normal."

     "Weird," Zed muttered, pulling out of the parking lot. Once they were on the road, he glanced over and said, "Email your professors and tell them you won't be coming in tomorrow." He continued speaking even as Shen protested, raising his voice a bit to be heard. "No, I don't give a shit what's due tomorrow. You were just bleeding from your face for two straight hours. O-Chem can fucking wait. You need to rest." 

     Shen looked like he was going to put up a fight for a moment, but even he couldn't deny that the whole afternoon had been exhausting. He sighed and pulled out his phone, sending a quick email to his professors. 

     They continued to drive in silence for a bit. Zed figured it had been a while since Shen had last eaten and said, "Hey, we're near a Panera. Do you want some soup or something?" He got no response, and glanced over. "Shen?"

     To his absolute endearment, Shen had dozed off. Zed chuckled and pulled into the drive-thru anyway. He was starving. After ordering a sandwich and a soup that he was pretty sure was vegetarian and free of suspect spices (Shen had once explained the dietary restrictions of a Buddhist, but Zed hadn't retained much of it), they were back on the road. 

     Once they were back at the apartment Shen shared with Akali and Lee Sin, Zed leaned over and nudged him awake. Shen made a sleepy noise and curled up further, and as adorable as it was, Zed wanted to get back to his own apartment so he could eat. "Wake up, shithead."

     "You're such a jerk," Shen mumbled, slowly straightening up and rubbing at his eyes. "Seriously. I just got out of the hospital, and this is the abuse I get?"

     "Yeah, and who took you to the hospital? If you had your way with it, you'd probably be passed out in a practice room somewhere, bleeding all over the floor," Zed teased, reaching over to ruffle Shen's hair. He would normally go for a punch to the arm, but he felt guilty hitting someone, even jokingly, who had just gotten discharged from a hospital. Plus, it would probably leave a bruise.

     Shen swatted Zed's hand away, stymieing a yawn into his elbow. "Yeah, I guess so," he murmured. "Thank you for taking me, by the way. You really didn't have to stay the whole time." 

     Zed just rolled his eyes and handed Shen the cup of soup, which was still warm. "It's tomato. You can have tomatoes, right?" 

     Shen opened the cup and sniffed it experimentally. "Tomatoes, yes, but not garlic." He capped the soup with an apologetic smile. 

     "Fuck, garlic," Zed groaned. He knew there had been something he had forgotten. 

     "Don't worry, I'm sure Akali or Lee will eat it. And I appreciate the effort nonetheless." Shen smiled warmly at Zed, and he couldn't help but return it. Shen's smile was both disarming and contagious, and although he would never admit it, just seeing Shen's smile raised Zed's spirits.  "Seriously, thank you for everything."

    "Of course, man. I wasn't about to let you bleed to death during rehearsal." Zed fiddled with the bluetooth on his radio, trying to get it to hook up to his phone. "Go get some rest. If I see you in class tomorrow, I'm gonna kick your ass, hospital or no hospital."

    Shen chuckled, sliding out of the car with the cup of soup. "Duly noted. I'll see you for rehearsal on Wednesday, then." With that, he disappeared into the apartment complex. 

    Zed finally got his phone to connect and pulled back out onto the road. He got home quick enough and realized how tense he still was, even though Shen was safe at home. They had, collectively, dealt with plenty of nosebleeds, but this one had been particularly terrifying. What if it had been worse? What if Shen had refused to go to the hospital with Zed? What would his blood test reveal? 

    Zed's thoughts remained restless until he was in bed, under the covers and scrolling through twitter. A notification popped up and he grinned when he saw who it was from. 

 

[Private Chat: deathmark, twilightassault]

twilightassault: I know you're still up Zed

twilightassault: Go to sleep, you need to rest as well! 

 

    Well, if Shen was feeling healthy enough to hound Zed about getting enough sleep, then all was normal. Zed locked his phone and plugged it in, then rolled back onto his side and closed his eyes. Before he knew it, fatigue had caught up with him and dragged him under. 

    

Chapter Text

     After a week and a few phone calls, Shen found himself visiting a hematologist for the first time. It wasn't too unlike visiting a normal doctor (although the guy himself was a bit odd, and had a seemingly endless amount of blood-related puns to share). The result of Shen's blood test had revealed a low platelet count, and upon further inspection, a low VWF count. The diagnosis: von Willebrand disease. 

 

     The hematologist explained that it was a fairly common bleeding disorder, not unlike hemophilia, and was the culprit of Shen's easy bruising and recurring nosebleeds. They discussed medication for a bit, and ended up agreeing that Shen should keep taking aminocaproic acid, sold as Amicar, for the time being. 

 

     It worked well enough when it was prescribed at the ER, so the hematologist saw no reason to change it. He told Shen about the dosing, interactions, and side effects, then sent him on his way. 

 

     And for about a week, everything was fine. The bruises on Shen's arms and legs healed up, and he no longer noticed specks of blood in the sink when he brushed his teeth. The problem arose when the medication actually started to build up in his system.

 

     The hematologist had explained that nausea was a potential issue, but fuck, Shen hadn't anticipated it being this bad. 

 

     After a few days of steadily growing nausea, Shen woke up in a cold sweat one night and barely made it to the bathroom before beginning to retch. He was hardly awake as he dropped to his knees and bent over the toilet, not aware of anything besides a searing, churning pain that consumed everything from his diaphragm to his hips. After a few moments, the vomiting abated, and Shen became a bit more lucid. 

 

     He could hear footsteps coming down the hall and leaned forward to peek through the partially-ajar door. It was Akali, wearing her pyjamas and a concerned expression. 

 

     Shen spat into the toilet and cleared his throat before attempting to speak. His voice still came out hoarse from the exertion of vomiting. "Sorry if I woke you up." 

 

     "Don't be," Akali murmured, stepping into the bathroom and leaning over to lay a hand on Shen's forehead. Her voice was uncharacteristically tender, as was the gesture, and Shen found himself frozen in place as she felt for a fever. "You don't feel warm. Have you been coughing at all?" 

 

     "No," Shen replied, sitting back on his heels and unconsciously wrapping his arms around his torso. "I think it's a side...fuck..." Shen trailed off with a harsh swallow and leaned over the toilet again. 

 

     Akali took a step closer to him and held Shen's hair back while he vomited. It took much longer for the vomiting to abate that time, and Shen was sweating and shivering by the end of it. Akali dropped her hands to his shoulders and guided him to sit against the wall while she flushed the toilet. 

 

     "Poor thing," Akali murmured, seemingly to herself, as Shen curled up tightly, aching head resting on his knees. She sighed and sat down next to him, one hand coming up to rub slow circles between his shoulder blades. "Is this from the bleeding medicine?" 

 

     Shen just hummed in affirmation; he didn't want to risk opening his mouth to answer. 

 

     Akali nodded and squeezed his shoulder before standing up again. "Alright. Stay here for a second, I'm gonna get some water and medicine." 

 

     Shen doubted he would be able to move if he wanted to, so he nodded in response and promptly regretted it when the room swayed dizzyingly around him. Shen pressed his forehead into his knees, exhaling slowly through his nose and trying to steady himself somehow.

 

     The vertigo sensation reminded Shen of the first time he took an American taxi. He had somehow been able to tolerate the thirteen-hour flight from Tibet, but fourteen-year-old Shen had never actually been in a car at that point in his life, much less one that was driving through city traffic. The maladjustment must have shown on his face, because the driver had taken one look at him through the rearview mirror and wordlessly handed Shen a plastic bag from the center console.

 

     Shen had adapted and mostly gotten over his motion sickness since then. He couldn't say the same for lysine derivatives, apparently.

 

      He could hear voices from down the hall, pulling him back into the present moment. With a pang of guilt, Shen realized he must have woken Lee Sin as well. He glanced down the hall to confirm his suspicion, but just moving his head was enough for the dizziness to fully give way to nausea. 

 

     When Akali returned, Shen was doubled over the toilet again. There wasn't much to come up besides watery bile and saliva, but dry heaves continued to wrack Shen for a good minute before finally relenting. Akali, bless her soul, patiently held his hair away from his face and helped him sit back when it was finally over. 

 

     Akali had set a bottle of water on the sink counter when she came back, and she handed that to Shen after confirming his hands were steady enough to hold it. Shen rinsed his mouth out before taking a couple careful sips. His throat stung with each swallow, but he knew dehydration would only make things worse. He glanced over at the counter, expecting to see medication, and instead saw a whole unshaven ginger root. 

 

     Shen made a noise somewhere between a laugh and a cough, gesturing to the root in a silent question. Akali followed the direction of his hand and flushed. She picked the ginger up and turned it over in her hand. "Hey, I've heard ginger is good for an upset stomach. Maybe you should...I dunno, smell it? Take a fuckin' bite out of it?" She chuckled at the ridiculousness of her own suggestion, but it seemed more nervous than humorous. 

 

     Akali set the root back on the counter and sat down next to Shen. "Sorry, I'm not great at the whole caretaking thing." 

 

     He had picked up on as much- he could tell that Akali wanted to help him, but didn't know how. "It's alright. You-" his voice clicked out halfway through, and Shen had to clear his throat a couple times before trying again. "You should go back to bed. It's late." 

 

     Akali turned and looked at Shen like he had suggested she convert to Buddhism. "And just leave you here to suffer?" She asked, sounding incredulous. 

 

     "I...yes?" Shen responded weakly, voice cracking. He had to bury his face in his elbow to muffle a fit of coughing as his throat protested the exertion of speaking. It left him feeling even more lightheaded than before, vision fuzzy as he attempted to catch his breath. 

 

     "Right," Akali muttered, shaking her head as she watched the whole thing unfold. "You look like you're about to pass out, and I'd rather be awake to call an ambulance in case that happens. Sorry, but you're stuck with me." 

 

     There was no arguing with Akali once she had set her mind to something. And honestly...Shen didn't mind the company. He felt absolutely miserable, but it sucked a bit less now that he wasn't alone. Besides that, he was touched that Akali was even offering to stay with him, even though it was sometime in the early morning and the bathroom smelled like puke. 

 

     "Thank you," Shen murmured, eyes locked on the tile floor. His cheeks were flushed with dual embarrassment and endearment, but Akali didn't seem to notice (or if she did, she was too polite to comment on it).

 

      Shen didn't recall falling asleep, but he woke up feeling disoriented and on the brink of vomiting again. He quickly pushed himself forward and doubled over the toilet, dry heaving several times before finally choking up a bitter mix of bile and stomach acid. Someone was holding his hair back and saying something he couldn't quite hear over the sound of blood rushing in his ears, and he began to remember dozing off against Akali. 

 

     He wished he was still asleep. Unconsciousness was vastly preferable to whatever the fuck the medication was doing to Shen's body. 

 

     Shen vaguely remembered a biology lesson in which he learned that the stomach had a thick coating of mucus to prevent the acid from eating through the organ and surrounding structures. He imagined that lacking that barrier would feel somewhat like how he felt in that moment- overcome by a burning, gnawing pain. His headache had gotten worse as well, morphing from a dull ache to a vicious throb that pulsed in time with his heartbeat. 

 

     "Shen?" 

 

     It was Akali's voice, sounding both concerned and impatient- like she was waiting for the answer of an important question. She sighed and put her hands on Shen's shoulders, once again guiding him to sit back against the bathroom wall so she could flush the evidence of his sickness away. After a moment of silence in which Shen curled up tightly and pressed a hand over his eyes to block out the too-bright light of the bathroom, she said, "I think we should go to the hospital. You weren't able to keep water down for even an hour." 

 

     Shen heard the click of a light switch and cautiously peeked through his fingers, letting out a sigh when darkness enveloped his field of sight. "It might go away on its own," He rasped, voice barely louder than a whisper. 

 

     "Or you might just get more and more dehydrated, and that's asking for trouble," Akali argued in an equally hushed tone, seemingly aware of Shen's headache. 

 

     She was right. Shen knew how quickly vomiting lead to dehydration, and how dehydration led to more vomiting. It was cyclical and most people weren't aware of how dehydrated they were until damage was already being done to the body. Even so, he dreaded the idea of going to a hospital. The noise, the motion, even thinking about it made Shen choke back a gag. It would be too much. 

 

     So he aimed for a compromise. "Give it until morning. I'll try to drink some more and if it doesn't stay down, we can go to a hospital." 

 

    Akali was silent as she contemplated Shen's proposal. Finally, she sighed and said, "I think that's a stupid fucking idea, but I'll trust your discretion. If you're still puking when the sun comes up, I'm either taking you to a hospital or sticking an IV in you myself- and you do not want that to happen. Got it?"

 

     Shen made a noise vaguely resembling agreement. Akali clapped him on the shoulder before standing up, saying that she was gonna get some medicine. 

 

     A few moments after Akali left the bathroom, Shen managed to haul himself onto his feet and fumble around in the dark before locating the bottle of mouthwash sitting on the counter. Ideally, he would have liked to take a full shower and brush his teeth, but he barely had the energy to stay upright as he rinsed his mouth out. 

 

     Akali came back just as Shen settled back down and unceremoniously dropped a blanket onto his lap. "Here, I found some antiemetics. I don't really know how old they are, but it's better than nothing." Using the flashlight on her phone, Akali grabbed the water bottle she had gotten earlier and passed it to Shen, along with the medication. "Try to drink a bit as well, alright?" 

 

     Shen obediently swallowed the pill and a few sips of water, then wrapped the blanket around himself. He couldn't help but feel a bit embarrassed that Akali was looking after him like this. He was a grown man, after all. He could look after himself, and he always had in the past, although that was more out of necessity than innate independence. Being sick while at the monastery, with everyone already holding him at arm's length... it was a special, horrible kind of isolation. There was certainly nobody grabbing medicine for Shen or holding his hair back while he puked- hell, half of the novices wouldn't even make eye contact with him. 

 

     Shen was still getting used to the idea that there were people who cared about him and wanted to help him, and still mourning the people who used to fill those roles. Mourning what he had left behind and what had since filled the empty spaces in his life. 

 

     Akali had sat down next to Shen and wrapped an arm around his shoulders. They had lived together for a little less than a year- Shen had spent a few months working at a library to build up some savings before applying to college- but their bond was strong. Akali could usually tell when Shen was getting lost in his own head, and knew how to pull him back. And Shen knew how to do the same for her. 

 

     "Try to get some sleep if you can," Akali murmured. 

 

     Shen wanted to convince Akali to go back to her own bed, but her presence was too comforting to willingly give up, despite his best intentions. And with the antiemetic medicine slowly working its magic, the debilitating nausea and dizziness was being replaced by fatigue. Shen found himself leaning into Akali's side, head resting on her shoulder. Akali kept her arm wrapped snugly around his shoulders- a gentle and constant reminder that Shen wasn't alone. 

 

     And that was enough to get him through the night.