Da Qing sat on the couch in the apartment he shared with Zhao Yunlan fidgeting with his cellphone, opening and closing apps mindlessly while waiting for Zhao Yunlan to come back from his broadcast to Dragon City.
Da Qing sighed in frustration as he tossed his phone aside. He was both deeply proud and deeply annoyed by Zhao Yunlan’s choices up to this point. Proud because he really put one over the Ministry with that little showcase of bravado and sympathy. It was a top tier cat move to walk in front of your opponent and taunt them. He just hoped it was enough to keep the city calm so they could stop Ye Zun.
Annoyed because Da Qing wasn't some fresh out of the basket kitten. He knew what Zhao Yunlan and Shen Wei were planning wasn't going to end well for either of them. Historically, neither Shen Wei nor Zhao Yunlan could rub two fish together and come up with a plan that didn’t involve one of them getting hurt, all in the name of saving each other. While they were off being narrow sighted, self-sacrificing idiots Da Qing was going to be left behind.
With all his memories restored, Da Qing could now pinpoint accurately when he’d blessed Zhao Yunlan with his cat favor and named him master (nevermind that Zhao Yunlan claimed it himself with his messy time travel). And it hurt he hadn’t thought to consult his best friend, his cat. Did all his years of loyalty mean nothing? Had he not proven himself endlessly reliable when it truly mattered?
His master was not a kitten anymore either—by Haixing standards in any case—but Da Qing was still within his rights to be upset. Maybe they could come up with another plan if Da Qing only had enough time. Shen Wei and Zhao Yunlan were some of the smartest men he knew and yet here they were being stupid.
Da Qing got up and paced back and forth between the door and the kitchen, sparing a grateful thought to Shen Wei for keeping the flat clean.
He didn’t begrudge Shen Wei, not really, not anymore. Contrary to what Lin Jing would have everyone believe, just because he was a cat didn’t mean he was always fickle. Only when it suited him thank you very much.
Shen Wei had as much claim to Zhao Yunlan as Da Qing. They each served a vital purpose to make sure Zhao Yunlan stayed whole and safe. They’d made a pinky promise.
He—well, he loved Shen Wei too. Maybe not as much as Lao Zhao, but still. Zhao Yunlan was his Haixingren and Shen Wei was his Haixingren’s—he grimaced, thinking of all the filthy and sickeningly saccharine things Zhao Yunlan had called Shen Wei in his presence. He was his master’s Shen Wei and meant a lot to him. So, Shen Wei had come to mean a lot to Da Qing as well.
Besides Zhao Yunlan’s need for him, Da Qing had been through plenty with Shen Wei. Two wars now and they each had had equally trying millennia alone and lost. They might not have been the best of friends in the Alliance, but Da Qing certainly had always respected him as Hei Pao Shi, with no small envy for all the responsibilities and struggles the job came with.
Plus, he made Da Qing tasty fish.
But that didn’t stop Da Qing from being furious with Shen Wei, that while he intended to save Zhao Yunlan, he didn’t stop to consider that Zhao Yunlan—the reckless disaster that he was, wouldn’t also follow him headlong into danger.
He groaned in frustration and pulled at his hair. Da Qing yowled in affront when he realized he was taking after Lin Jing, aggressively grooming his hair to restore some semblance of inner peace. Zhao Yunlan was going to owe him so much fish for that.
Da Qing threw himself back onto the couch abruptly and settled in for a good sulk, tucking his limbs into himself much like he would as a cat. He glared at the coffee table as if it held the answers he needed. There had to be something more. Why did they have to go and be heroes?
He chewed quietly on his lip and sighed, his anger cooling the longer he thought in circles.
Just then he heard the key scrape and turn in the lock. He refused to turn as the heavy footfalls entered the apartment and the keys were tossed towards the shelf. The routine sounds made Da Qing ache, and he closed his eyes trying to memorize the familiarity.
Zhao Yunlan made his way into the living room and abruptly stopped when he noticed Da Qing huddled on the couch.
“Fatty,” he breathed out. There were dark circles under his eyes and his body had a tired, ragged edge to it that reminded Da Qing of that one shirt that Zhao Yunlan swore by, that wasn’t “that threadbare, the holes aren’t visible when I put on a jacket”. Well, the jacket wasn’t doing much currently.
Da Qing averted his eyes, curling tighter into himself. “Were you even going to tell me?”
Zhao Yunlan tsked and walked towards the sink. “There’s nothing to tell,” Zhao Yunlan said tersely, filling a glass with water and draining it. It was well and good for Zhao Yunlan to deflect lesser Haixingren, but Da Qing wouldn’t take further insult.
Da Qing jumped up suddenly, the anger that had cooled roared back into a conflagration, and slammed Zhao Yunlan against the sink. His claws gripped Zhao Yunlan’s coat. The material strained against the strength of his grip, but Da Qing refused to back down. “Lao Zhao,” he growled. “If you thought I’d just roll over and let you go, then you’re dumber than I thought.”
The only reaction from Zhao Yunlan was a slight tensing of his shoulders before he immediately relaxed. It made him angrier to see Zhao Yunlan simply standing there with a solemn but determined look. He growled once more and shoved Zhao Yunlan back.
Letting out another deeply frustrated growl, Da Qing retreated and dropped himself into the corner of the couch, hands and legs pulled in tight. If he had his tail, it would be lashing from side to side. Zhao Yunlan sighed and moved to sit on the other end of the couch.
Da Qing’s body vibrated with the need to be closer. If this was the last time he’d see Zhao Yunlan—and it definitely wouldn’t be if he had anything to say about it—then he couldn’t ignore him. He crawled over hastily and planted his head on Zhao Yunlan's thigh.
The tension in Zhao Yunlan’s body melted away as he sat back.
“I didn’t think I needed to because I knew you’d be fine.”
“That’s a really stupid and selfish reason and yeah, maybe—eventually. Or possibly even never.” He threatened petulantly. He was not going to concede to Zhao Yunlan. “Doesn't mean I have to like it.” Da Qing picked absentmindedly at a loose thread in Zhao Yunlan’s pant leg. Zhao Yunlan often griped about Da Qing ruining his favorite clothes. The placement of it sat exactly where Da Qing often made himself comfortable for naps and a petty satisfaction ran through him knowing that his master had a reminder of him wherever he went. Good, he thought viciously.
Zhao Yunlan huffed out a breath as his hand started to rub Da Qing’s back. He resisted the automatic purr that arose in response to the caress. It felt so good but—upset, his cat hindbrain offered weakly. Da Qing narrowed his eyes across the living room, his hands curled tightly in protest.
“Of course, it doesn't. But I'd expect you to pick yourself up and take care of everyone.” Zhao Yunlan offered while simultaneously pinching Da Qing’s ear. Da Qing squirmed away. “But more than that I would like to think you'd respect my choice.”
“It isn’t much of a choice,” Da Qing hissed scathingly, his anger prickling hotly along his skin.
“You're right,” Zhao Yunlan replied sharply, his own anger finally filtering through his voice. “It isn't. But it’s the best that I have. It’s the best that we have. I won’t put anyone else at risk. So, we have to accept it. There isn’t time for another plan,” he added after a pregnant pause.
Changing tack, Da Qing meowed pitifully. Maybe if he was pathetic enough Zhao Yunlan would change his mind. “What would I do without my master? Who would feed me fish?”
“I think everyone knows well enough to keep you fed.”
“Who,” he said louder, “would keep me company in this lonely apartment?”
Zhao Yunlan didn’t respond. Tears welled up in Da Qing’s eyes as reality encroached on their familiar back-and-forth. He pressed his wet cheeks into Zhao Yunlan’s leg, his body shaking with contained sobs. Clearly at a loss, Zhao Yunlan rubbed his back tentatively.
“I don't want to leave you.” Zhao Yunlan exhaled so quietly only the Yashou could have heard him. Da Qing’s breath hitched as he felt Zhao Yunlan gently flick the bells around his neck.
“Then don't,” was muffled into a soggy thigh.
“It's not that simple.”
“There has to be something else!” Da Qing cried plaintively.
Zhao Yunlan sounded as equally frustrated as Da Qing felt. “There's only one person to really ask. No one else was as close to the origins of the Hallows themselves. And Zhang Shi has been annoyingly tight-lipped so far.”
Da Qing wiped his face against Zhao Yunlan’s pant leg, earning himself another pinch.
The silence stretched, there was no point in going in circles arguing so they each sat with the pit of their emotions lodged in their throats. The world around them felt tenuous like a bubble threatening to pop. Just one prick and everything would explode.
“It's okay you know,” Da Qing said quietly after a time, all the fight drained out of him. Zhao Yunlan needed to hear this.
“What are you talking about, Cat,” Zhao Yunlan murmured as his fingers rubbed along the curve of Da Qing’s skull behind his ear. It was a secret spot that Zhao Yunlan petted when Da Qing refused to talk or change into a human. Da Qing gently twisted into the motion and closed his eyes.
“To be afraid. To love him.” Because he’s sitting so close and had superior cat hearing, he caught the hitch in Zhao Yunlan’s breath.
Zhao Yunlan stayed silent for a long time. His fingers carded through Da Qing’s hair with an air of consideration. The air filled with the unpleasant tang of anxiety, but Da Qing waited him out.
“There’s a lot going on… the end of the world is on its way,” Zhao Yunlan said dryly.
“That's true. But I think the end of the world could carve out some space for your happiness. If not now, then when? When else is it romantic but at the end of the world?” Da Qing was intimately familiar with Zhao Yunlan’s hesitation to put words to his feelings, to go all in. He’d been burned too many times already.
“I think he knows.” His voice was small and shaky. It was a rare sight to catch Zhao Yunlan in a vulnerable moment. He often chose to laugh things off or act like he didn’t care.
“Well, I think it would be a kindness to share it—to actually say it. Considering how long you made him wait.” His tone was haughty in an attempt to shift Zhao Yunlan into more comfortable territory while still saying his piece.
“I think,” Da Qing spoke over Zhao Yunlan's protest, “that all this,” he waved his hand, “is going to hurt regardless. But if you don't say something, you'll regret it.”
Zhao Yunlan released an annoyed breath.
“Back to being a poet, I see.” There's a strain in his voice that Da Qing recognized as Zhao Yunlan accepting his advice and taking it to heart.
“I'm quite cultured, haven't you heard?” He purred smugly.
They both turned at the sound of a portal opening. Shen Wei walked through and zeroed in on Zhao Yunlan immediately. Not that Zhao Yunlan was much better. Da Qing rolled his eyes and gave Zhao Yunlan a shove before he shifted. Jumping off the couch, he neatly rubbed against Shen Wei’s ankles as he made his way toward the window. They had things they needed to discuss and Da Qing would rather not be here for it.
It’s later in the evening when Da Qing made his way back to the flat, squeezing himself through the window that Zhao Yunlan always left cracked open just for him. The flat is silent and still. The darkness, an almost physical thing creeping up behind Da Qing to pull him under, muddled flashes of a man that looked like Shen Wei with a razor sharp grin burned in his memory like a sick afterimage. His fur bristled as he tried to shake off his dark thoughts.
His keen eyes shifted towards the bed and its occupants. Shen Wei was spooning Zhao Yunlan, his arm forming a firm shield between him and any danger. Zhao Yunlan in turn held Shen Wei’s hand between both of his own, loosely pressed under his chin. Shen Wei stirred when Da Qing hopped onto the bed, his eyes hazy with exhaustion but alert as they made a quick sweep of the room.
Shen Wei looked terrible. In the weak light from the shuttered curtains, he looked wan, the shadows of his face deeper than the darkness around them. If anyone had come upon him in an unlit hallway they’d think he was a ghost.
Remorse and longing swirled in Da Qing’s heart for similar nights in their shared past where they’d pile into either Shen Wei’s or Kunlun’s tent and forgot the outside world for a short while.
Shen Wei and Da Qing stared at each other. Da Qing narrowed his eyes as he watched Shen Wei’s body tense and shudder, his eyes blinking rapidly, his head dipping down marginally as if trying to hide whatever that had been. Some things never change, he thought in exasperation, his tail puffing up slightly in displeasure. Da Qing leapt onto Shen Wei’s hip, claws flexing minutely, bunting his head against Shen Wei’s forearm and affectionately biting it before he kneaded into the coverlet.
Turning a few times to find the right spot, Da Qing finally curled up in the space perfectly situated between the two men. Tentative fingers combed through his fur and his eyes slipped closed with a purr. As the hand retracted, his eyes slid open to watch Shen Wei press his face back into the nape of Zhao Yunlan’s neck, his hand resuming its place protecting Zhao Yunlan’s heart.
According to Zhao Yunlan, he didn’t have any options left. But Da Qing refused to give up. He’s a ten thousand year old king of cats. Giving up was for scared mice. Tomorrow he would corner Zhang Shi and have his own conversation with him. Make him share everything he knew about the Hallows.
He swore a solemn cat oath: His masters would both come home.
Da Qing breathed out and watched them for a time and waited for sleep to claim him.