Zhao Yunlan has eaten a lot of questionable things in his life. Some of them purposefully, like the time he drank the coffee-cheese-ground beef-prune-yogurt smoothie on a dare, and then spent the next two days camped out in the bathroom.
Other times, during the early days of being a poor college student, it had been Da Qing bringing home unrecognizable dinners when neither of them could afford to buy groceries. At least on those occasions, Zhao Yunlan had been fairly certain that whatever was placed before him wouldn’t land him in the hospital.
When he discovered the miracle of instant noodles boiled in coffee, Da Qing had made a sound like he was coughing up a hairball, but from that day on, neither one of them had had to go dumpster diving.
And after becoming Chief of SID, things had improved tremendously, with take outs replacing instant noodles and fresh groceries purchased weekly. Unfortunately, neither he nor Da Qing quite knew what to do with anything naturally green or raw, so oftentimes produce would wither and grow moldy before they could figure it out.
Still, it had been the thought that counted.
Then came Shen Wei.
Zhao Yunlan will always think of his life as two separate parts of the same story – before Shen Wei, and after.
Before Shen Wei, Zhao Yunlan and Da Qing had lived in what could be politely referred to as squalor. Laundry had been done when even Zhao Yunlan couldn’t handle the smell, and dishes were left to molder in the sink until Da Qing hissed whenever he wandered too close.
After Shen Wei, there was always fresh food in a fridge that didn’t smell of decay and spoilt milk. Tupperware dishes of leftovers were neatly stacked and color coordinated, and frozen home cooked soups filled the freezer.
Before being exposed to Shen Wei’s regular meals and care, Zhao Yunlan had gone through his stomach medicine on a nearly monthly basis. Now, he would sometimes go a few weeks without having to take any pills, even though a bottle always remained in easy reach on the shelf with Da Qing’s fish sauce.
None of his past experiences, however, had prepared Zhao Yunlan for this.
“No,” he moaned, curling up as best he could against the back of the cave wall.
What little light filtered in through the cracks in the stones blocking his exit illuminated the large, hairy rat hanging from Da Qing’s mouth.
“You haven’t eaten in over a day!” Da Qing protested after letting the very dead rodent drop onto the dusty, rocky floor of the cave Zhao Yunlan had the misfortune to be trapped in.
“And I won’t eat anything for another day if that’s my only choice!” Zhao Yunlan said firmly. “We’ve been spoiled by Shen Wei! Remember when we used to go a day or two without eating? One day won’t kill me, but that might!”
Da Qing licked a paw primly.
“Yes, those were the days,” Da Qing said in such a dry tone Zhao Yunlan coughed.
Or perhaps it was the dust that still filled the cavern after the cave in.
“Shen Wei is not going to be happy if I let you starve. He would eat what I’ve hunted!” Da Qing grumbled.
Zhao Yunlan opened his mouth to protest before remembering his expedition to the past and having to watch Shen Wei and his soldiers forage for bugs and rodents on overnight missions. Food had been in such short supply back then that people had eaten whatever could be found.
“I’m sure Shen Wei will understand,” he finally protested weakly, though the little niggle in the back of his brain had him doubting the truth of his words.
The look Da Qing leveled at him had him believing the cat had similar thoughts.
“No one is expecting us back for another day,” Da Qing sighed, nudging the dead rodent closer to his human with the paw he just licked. “I know you have a knife to skin it.”
Zhao Yunlan felt his long dead gag reflex kick in and had to turn away from the beady-eyed monstrosity.
“I can’t even make a fire!” he protested. “If you expect me to eat that, I can guarantee you, I will absolutely puke it back up.”
Da Qing sighed a long-suffering sigh and finally seemed to relent, making his way over to where Zhao Yunlan had wedged himself into a half sitting position against the rocks that had so recently blocked his exit.
There were gaps that Da Qing could fit through, and which allowed air to flow in, but when they had tried to widen those gaps, the rocks had let out an ominous creaking sound and then shifted, settling more firmly in place and unleashing another torrent of dust and small pebbles that rained down on them both.
Zhao Yulan’s phone was dead, and their radio had been smashed in the initial rock fall. Worse, Zhao Yunlan was pretty certain he had broken his right wrist during his desperate attempt to avoid getting squashed, and now all he could do was grit his teeth and hope that somehow, someway, they would be rescued.
“I still don’t understand why you won’t go get help,” Zhao Yunlan protested, even though they had had this argument several times over the past day.
Da Qing hissed, his ears pulling back to flatten against his head as he glared.
“I am not Lassie,” he growled, eyes flashing in the dim light. “I am not going to leave you here defenseless while I try to figure out where the nearest human is!”
“You know where the nearest human is!” Zhao Yunlan snapped back. “We barely made it a mile up the trail head! All you have to do is find someone with a working phone, call SID, and then come back!”
“Like I would call SID,” Da Qing hissed, his ears flicking in irritation. He prowled closer to Zhao Yunlan and very deliberately bit his good hand. He didn’t draw blood, and Zhao Yunlan, like the good, experienced cat owner he was, didn’t even flinch at the love bite.
“If I call anyone, it will be Shen Wei, and then I’ll let him deal with you when he comes to rescue us!” Da Qing’s tail lashed back and forth in his agitation, and Zhao Yunlan gently scratched the spot behind his ears that he knew would make the Yashou melt.
Sure enough, Da Qing’s body relaxed, and his eyes squinted shut. It took a few minutes for him to regain his righteous anger, but when he turned his glower back to his human, it wasn’t nearly as ferocious as before.
“Da Qing,” Zhao Yunlan said softly.
It was the tone of voice he used when he was serious, when the time for jokes and self-deprecation was past.
Da Qing’s ears drooped and the wide-eyed stare he gave Zhao Yunlan would have done-in most people. But Zhao Yunlan had known Da Qing for almost all his life and was able to stiffen his spine and return the gaze with his own pleading one.
Finally, Da Qing relented, heaving a great sigh.
“I’ll go on one condition,” he said, and Zhao Yunlan narrowed his eyes. “You have to eat the rat.”
“Nooooo,” Zhao Yunlan whined, trying not to let his gaze wander back to that horrible, evil, no-good creature staring at him with dead eyes. “Why do I have to eat it when I know I’m going to be rescued soon?”
“Because I hunted it, and you’re getting all sweaty, even though it’s cool in here, which means your stomach is acting up,” Da Qing said bluntly.
And dammit, but Da Qing was right.
Zhao Yunlan had been struggling not to think about the pain slowly growing in his stomach, the soft ache that he knew was only going to get worse without his medication or something to eat.
“Can you at least cook it?” he pleaded, knowing he was going to give in eventually and just hoping he could make the situation a little better. “I honestly cannot eat that raw, I swear I will puke it up and then I’ll be in even more pain!”
Da Qing grumbled but set about trying to dig the lighter out of Zhao Yunlan’s back pocket. They always brought it when they went camping, a sturdy little thing that had been a present from one of Zhao Yunlan’s college girlfriends when she found out he liked the outdoors.
It took a few minutes of wiggling and grumbling from both of them, but eventually Da Qing scrambled back with his prize from where Zhao Yunlan was contorted to give him access to his jean’s pocket.
They had brought a bag with emergency supplies, but it had been buried in the rock fall, and every attempt so far at retrieving it had caused more of those ominous creaking noises and dust to stir up again.
It wasn’t exactly their fault they only had the one bag, either. They had, after all, just been expecting to be gone for the day on an easy hike, and neither one of them had prepared for extended camping or even the surprise storm which had forced them to seek refuge in the cave in the first place.
Still, both of them were aware that once they were safely home, Shen Wei was going to let them have it.
“Let’s never do this again,” Da Qing sighed, resisting the urge to give a full body shake. The last time he had done that, the cave had filled with dust and left them both wheezing and coughing.
“At least not without Shen Wei,” Zhao Yunlan agreed.
If he had been in his human form, Da Qing would have made them pinky swear. As it was, he settled for pushing the rat and the lighter closer and waited until Zhao Yunlan pulled his knife from where it was clipped to his belt.
“It wasn’t that bad,” Da Qing said, ignoring the fake gagging sounds Zhao Yunlan was making.
He was 90% certain they were fake. Maybe 85%. Zhao Yunlan did look a little green.
“I am never, ever doing that again. I will starve,” Zhao Yunlan promised, glaring at what little remained of the rodent, shoved as far from himself as he could make it. “Ever.”
“Like you never ate a rat when you went back in time,” Da Qing grumbled. “I know what Heipaoshi ate on scouting missions.”
Zhao Yunlan remained suspiciously quiet, and Da Qing turned narrowed eyes on him.
“Stop looking at me like that,” Zhao Yunlan protested, curling up over his wrist and avoiding his friend’s eyes.
“How?” Da Qing demanded, both impressed and somewhat horrified.
Zhao Yunlan shrugged, his expression carefully blank.
“There were a lot of soldiers, it’s easy to lose track of who had what and how much. Besides, Shen Wei was always using so much more energy, it really wasn’t an issue to let him have my bit.”
Da Qing continued to stare at him before breaking out into a maniacal cackle.
“He’s going to kill you!” he crowed.
Zhao Yunlan halfheartedly tried to kick him, Da Qing dodging easily, even in the small space.
“He’s going to get that look on his face, and he’s going to make so much food!” Da Qing continued, his tail swishing again.
“He’s not going to find out!” Zhao Yunlan protested. “It was thousands of years ago, it’s in the past!”
“It was just over two years ago, and he still gets mad when he thinks of that one cook who tried to give you less than Heipaoshi.” Da Qing is positively cheerful now, having something to hold over his human, and Zhao Yunlan sighed in resignation.
“Will you please go get us rescued now, Damn Cat?” he asked, trying to hide the exhaustion and pain in his voice.
Da Qing heard it anyway and sobered immediately.
“I’ll be back soon,” he promised, and gave a quick lick to Zhao Yunlan’s hand before he left, squirming between the cracks in the rocks and leaving behind a series of ominous creaking and dust.
Zhao Yunlan settled back as best he could, wrist cradled against his chest, and waited.
It took less than an hour for Da Qing to return, Shen Wei’s steady voice easing the last of Zhao Yunlan’s worries.
Everything was going to be fine now.
Da Qing wiggled his way back into the cavern and deposited himself on Zhao Yunlan’s chest, purring loud enough to vibrate his human’s rib cage, as Shen Wei set about removing the rocks that had trapped their human for nearly a day.
The rocks moved easily, Da Qing and Zhao Yunlan protected under an energy shield from any dislodged debris, and within a half hour Zhao Yunlan was stumbling out of the cave with Da Qing supporting him.
“Yunlan,” Shen Wei gasped, and strong arms were sweeping him up into a gentle but firm hug, dark energy already swirling around his broken wrist.
“Xiao Wei,” Zhao Yunlan murmured, and oh, he was never leaving Shen Wei behind again, the two of them were glued together from now on, that was just how things were!
“He needs to eat something,” Da Qing said, mischief lurking behind his worried expression.
“I did eat something, Fatty!” Zhao Yunlan protested, face pressed tightly to Shen Wei’s chest, his words muffled.
“That was barely an appetizer!” Da Qing protested, dodging out of the way from Zhao Yunlan’s kick. “It was a skinny rat, it barely had any meat on its bones!”
“You ate a rat?” Shen Wei asked, horror and admiration warring in his tone and expression, and the hands holding him clutched him a bit tighter.
“We are never speaking about this again!” Zhao Yunlan said firmly. He shuddered in remembered horror and tried not to remember the past few hours. “I want to go home!”
Shen Wei, ever eager to fulfill his wish, did just that, opening a portal and taking them straight to their living room.
Zhao Yunlan won the right to the fist shower on account of him being the smelliest and dirtiest, and he spent a wonderful thirty minutes under the hot water before letting himself be bundled up in warm towels and then even warmer pajamas.
Hot soup was set out on the table, along with two of his stomach pills and a large glass of electrolyte drink Shen Wei kept on hand for when Zhao Yunlan was sick or had to drink too much with the bosses.
Da Qing had apparently already eaten his own bowl and left the two men for his own shower as soon as Zhao Yunlan was seated. He rubbed his check against his human’s before he did so, leaving a smear of dirt on Zhao Yunlan’s clean cheek, but Shen Wei just wiped it with a napkin as he sat with his own dinner.
Zhao Yunlan was starting to fade, the exhaustion and pain from the day catching up to him, and he had barely finished eating before he was bundled into bed and deeply asleep.
“Thank you for taking care of him.”
Shen Wei’s soft voice filtered through the sleep still tugging at Zhao Yunlan, and he found himself fighting it’s pull to listen to the conversation above him.
“Of course,” Da Qing said, his weight heavy on Zhao Yunlan’s legs, his purr vibrating through the blankets. “He’s my human.”
“I’m just amazed you actually got him to eat it,” Shen Wei continued, and gentle fingers carded softly through his hair, a touch so light he would not have felt it if he was still fully asleep. “He always managed to avoid it before, in the past.”
There was a heavy silence, Da Qing’s purr cutting off.
“You knew?” he asked, disappointed now he didn’t have something to hold over Zhao Yunlan’s head.
“Of course. He wasn’t very subtle.”
And wow, Zhao Yunlan was actually a little bit insulted!
“He always gave his portion to the youngest, or to me when they refused. I had always thought he was just being selfless….”
“When he was just being squeamish,” Da Qing snickered, and the purring started up again.
“When he was being squeamish,” Shen Wei agreed, tone utterly fond.
They were quiet after that, and Zhao Yunlan felt himself being pulled back down into sleep once more as Da Qing’s gentle rumbling and Shen Wei’s fingers did their magic.
Zhao Yunlan had eaten a lot of questionable things in his life, some out of necessity and others out of stupidity. But if there was one thing he had learned along the way, it was that so long as he was with those he loved, no matter if it smelled funny or tasted odd, any meal could be a feast.
“Maybe we should get a pet rat, just in case,” Da Qing’s voice interrupted his musings and fall into sleep.
The cats yowl as he jerked his legs out from under him was beautiful, as was Shen Wei’s laughter.
No, he would never go hungry again, so long as he had these two to feast with.