It’s late at night, lao-Zhao is asleep, and the building’s silent except for the occasional gurgle of water pipes. Da Qing is holed up in the disused service cupboard at the top of the stairs, revelling in his secret yarn stash. He’s already turned two skeins of merino into a satisfying tangle and is starting on his latest acquisition (a blue feather-soft silk-and-cashmere blend) when his cat ears pick up human footsteps approaching outside.
He flips onto his feet and hunches down, ears back, eyes wide, frozen except for his tail, which flicks warily, brushing the forgotten cleaning supplies on the bottom shelf to his left. It must be someone heading for the roof (a rare occurrence, especially in the middle of the night). Perhaps one of the neighbours has bought a telescope for stargazing. But the footsteps pause outside his cupboard door. The handle turns.
Could it be lao-Zhao? Da Qing winces at the thought of being caught like this: he’ll never hear the end of it. Lao-Zhao is his best friend through thick and thin, but he’s suffered Da Qing’s teasing for so long, there must be a mountain of payback waiting to avalanche down and bury Da Qing’s pride. To be caught here, cavorting like a kitten—
It’s not lao-Zhao. It’s Professor Shen peering in, his jaw clenched, glasses obscuring his gaze. Then he looks down, and his whole stance softens. “Oh. Da Qing.”
Lao-Zhao and Da Qing searched Professor Shen’s flat only a couple of days ago. Da Qing shifts into human form before his fur can bristle and give him away. And Professor Shen doesn’t even blink at this open display of Yashou-ness. So suspicious. They stare at each other.
“How did you find me?” asks Da Qing, making it an accusation. He’s been quiet, not much louder than a mouse.
Professor Shen’s eyebrows twitch, his only reply. Is he admitting he’s Dixingren with additional senses? That would explain a few things.
“I was just—” Da Qing pushes away the ancient mop that’s jabbing him in the shoulder and glances behind him, searching for a dignified explanation, coming up blank. It’s going to take hours to unknot his nest of yarn and rewind the balls. He faces forward again. “Private time.”
“I understand.” There’s no judgement in Professor Shen’s manner. He’s perfectly respectful, seems almost fond. But why? They barely know each other.
Regardless, Da Qing’s not above taking advantage. He doesn’t usually ask strangers for favours (unless it’s food-related), but— “Don’t tell lao-Zhao?”
“Of course,” says Professor Shen, too quickly.
Da Qing narrows his eyes. Professor Shen has secrets, too: that SID dossier on his desk, for one; his ability to find a person in a cupboard two storeys above his own flat, in the middle of the night, for another. And if Professor Shen is agreeing not to blab about Da Qing’s stash, that cuts both ways; it means Da Qing’s promising not to reveal the professor found him here, either. Mutual discretion.
Lao-Zhao already suspects Professor Shen; he’s already making enquiries with the Regent of Dixing. He doesn’t need any further evidence, so no harm in keeping quiet.
But even knowing the professor won’t talk, the shared subterfuge isn’t comfortable. Da Qing’s tail—metaphysical now, just a feeling in the back of his mind—lashes, but he plays it cool. “Okay.”
Professor Shen hesitates, then offers a slight smile. “Can I interest you in a cup of tea—or something to eat?”
He sounds hopeful, is lonely perhaps, and under normal circumstances, Da Qing wouldn’t dream of turning down food. But he does have some loyalty and common sense; he’s not going to socialise with someone lao-Zhao mistrusts. Besides, he had a big dinner, and for once he’s not actually hungry. He shakes his head.
Professor Shen face goes blank, like he’s wearing an invisible mask. Is he offended? He takes a step back. “All right. Well, goodnight.”
Da Qing watches him go, then retreats into his cupboard and shuts the door. The professor’s footsteps fade as he descends the stairs until the night is pin-drop quiet again, just the faint gurgling of the pipes to break the silence, but Da Qing’s no longer in the mood to play. He crouches down and starts unpicking the knotted yarn, too aware his secret is no longer his alone.
The next time he visits his stash, over a week later, he finds a gift bag waiting inside: it holds two balls of alpaca wool, in soft green and pink, a pair of table-tennis balls that skitter pleasingly across the floor, and a catnip fish. Professor Shen hasn’t told lao-Zhao—if he had, Da Qing certainly would have heard about it—and if Da Qing is reading things right, he won’t intrude again.
A slight, underlying tension eases, and Da Qing shifts into cat form, the better to appreciate these tributes.