Katy knew one thing for sure about Shaun: he didn’t know the meaning of the word “quit”.
Normally that was to his credit. Like, when he didn’t let the grind of their crappy jobs take away his smile and carefree outlook on life. Or — to give a more recent example — all those times on their whirlwind journey to Ta-Lo and back when pretty much anyone else would have given up, lost their mind or just straight up died.
But now, as Katy strained to keep Shaun’s muscular ass on her couch while he protested that “It’s not fair to let you do everything for me,” she was starting to resent her best friend’s big heart. And the pleading look on his stupid, angelic face too.
“You saved the whole freaking world two days ago,” she scolded him. “I can handle getting Takis from the kitchen on my own.”
Shaun finally slumped against the couch, rubbing his shoulders where she had held him down. Katy rolled her eyes and strode out of the living room. Shaun was dreaming if he thought he could guilt her over a forceful yet caring friend-push after she watched him fight off Captain Hook’s burly Russian cousin and his team of assassins.
As she rifled through the kitchen cabinets for snacks, Katy’s phone buzzed in her pocket. She found a new email from one of the places she had applied for work, waiting with the many unanswered messages from earlier that week. It confirmed what she had already guessed: skipping her interview to fly off to Macao had cost her the job. Duh. She turned the phone off and pocketed it.
Just a few days ago, the very idea of letting down her mom yet again would have given Katy panic hives. She would have spent the night out with Shaun, avoiding home for as long as possible to delay the inevitable disappointed stares.
But the trip to Ta-Lo had taken the weight of her mother’s expectations off Katy’s shoulders. She didn’t know what was next — for her, for Shaun or for both of them — but she had proven to herself that whatever challenges life threw her way, she was ready to take them on.
At least, she was with Shaun by her side.
She stacked up bags of chips and prawn crackers, beer cans, fresh ice packs, cutlery and plastic containers of her mom’s leftovers then shuffled out of the kitchen with them teetering in her arms. When Shaun rose off the couch to help her she clucked her tongue loudly and gave him a sharp look.
“Sit down, bus boy,” she ordered. “I’ve got it under control.”
A bag of prawn crackers immediately slipped off the bulging pile in her arms, but to his credit Shaun only raised an eyebrow while she kicked it the rest of the way to the couch. When Katy dumped the heap of food on the coffee table Shaun reached for a beer, wincing as he bent forward. She flopped on the cushion beside him and went limp with a grunt of relief.
Katy had spent their trip home from China in the worst shape of her life. From the fight on the bus to their departure from Ta-Lo, she had basically endured a non-stop adrenaline rush. So when she finally had time to catch her breath, she crashed. It felt like sprinting head-first into a wall made of exhaustion and pain. The only upside was that Shaun, who was lucky to even be alive, slept the entire flight home and didn’t hear her groaning like a zombie for twelve hours straight.
Everyone else in coach did, sure, but she could live with that.
She had lost five separate arguments urging Shaun to see a doctor, both before and after the flight. But he went along quietly after she insisted he spend a night recouping at her place, maybe just so she would finally relax.
Helping Shaun limp upstairs wasn’t exactly comforting, of course. And then, in the bathroom, Katy had to wriggle Shaun’s shirt and hoodie off his horrendously bruised torso because she couldn’t bear the groans Shaun made when he raised his arms. Thankfully he insisted on handling the sweatpants himself, and when he emerged from the bathroom after an hour-long shower he seemed like himself again. Except when he tried to move.
“Feeling any better?” she asked Shaun while they lay on the couch with their feet among the snacks on the coffee table. He made an approving noise into his beer can. Katy picked up one of her own and held it to her throbbing forehead. “You stink though, for real. That Tiger Balm shit is rank.”
“It works,” Shaun said. “You should try some.”
“I mainly fell on my ass though. It’s not going to cause any like, complicated interactions if I rub it on down there?”
“I meant for your headache.”
Shaun reached up with a stifled groan and took Katy’s beer can from her. She furrowed her brow and waited for a moment while he pressed the chilled can to her head. Finally, Katy realized he was just holding it in the same place she had been, but saving her the effort.
“Can you cut that out, please?” Katy snatched the can back. “I’m supposed to be the one looking after you, here. You wouldn’t ask your surgeon, ‘Hey doc, can I buy you a coffee? You look a little run down.’”
“But what if it seemed like she was having a really bad day, too?”
“You’re having surgery!” Katy caught herself yelling and exhaled slowly. Waking up Waipo and having her hover over both of them all night was the last thing she wanted. “I mean, you’re supposed to be taking it easy. Just chill out, alright? You earned your rest and now I’m enforcing it.”
“I appreciate that, but I’m already doing way better.”
They both faced forward as the din of the TV stopped abruptly. Ruihua had left his anime playing before Katy shooed him to his room. Now a black screen was asking, Are you still watching?
Shaun reached for the remote poised on an armrest then shrank back against the couch, coughing and clutching his chest. Katy grumbled as she sprawled over his lap, grabbing the remote with her outstretched arm. Shaun put his hand out to take it but Katy held the remote over her head — it felt good to pull a trick Shaun normally used on her, for once.
“You don’t need to be making any tough decisions in your delicate state,” she said, copying the voice her mother had used to dote on Shaun earlier. He seemed to get the message this time and slouched in his seat without argument.
Too tired to pick a show herself, Katy clicked through the shuffle option. She vetoed one of those horny reality shows set on an island, a complicated-looking heist movie and a fantasy series with weirdly detailed puppets before settling on Titanic. Something old and mushy, sure to put Shaun to sleep.
Curling up on her seat, Katy set her head on Shaun’s shoulder out of habit. He shrugged out from under her right away and she cussed herself out in her own mind for being so careless.
“Did that hurt?” she asked.
“I’m just getting comfortable.”
Katy was less than convinced but Shaun draped his arm around her and settled back. This time she watched Shaun’s face while snuggling against his chest. When he didn’t wince she could finally relax again. She set her hand on Shaun’s arm, feeling surprised by its firmness until she remembered he was still wearing the ten rings.
”Are you going to stay young for a thousand years, like Wenwu did?”
She blurted out the question without thinking of how Shaun would take it. To her relief, he smiled slightly and glanced her way. “That would be pretty cool, right?”
She wanted to agree, although a nagging idea in the back of her mind made her keep quiet. It was nice to imagine Shaun living forever, always looking the way she remembered him and probably using the ten rings to help people all over the world. But the thought of him doing it without her, long after she was gone, stung her in a way she had never felt before.
Shaun might have sensed her uncertainty, because he added, “But when I stop wearing the rings I’ll keep aging as usual. Once I find a good place to keep them, things will go back to normal.”
Katy doubted that, somehow, but she smiled again and met Shaun’s gaze. “That’s too bad, it would have been pretty fun to hit the clubs in my seventies with a polite young man to carry me home at the end of the night.”
She pinched Shaun’s bruised cheeks the way Waipo sometimes did and he let out an exaggerated groan. “Hey, go easy, world-saving hero you’re pinching there.” Katy scoffed and pinched him harder.
“Which one of us nailed that one-in-a-million shot on the evil octopus dragon? I practically set you up for the alley-oop.”
“Alright, alright I surrender.”
Shaun chuckled at her indignation and broke out in another coughing fit. He had been wheezing on and off since his fight with Wenwu, and although Shaun played down the injury Katy could see tears welling in his eyes now. She stroked a hand through his short hair and Shaun set his hand on her knee to reassure her — not that it worked one bit.
When the coughs finally subsided she asked, “How’s the ice pack holding up?” and rapped her hand on the spot where the plastic square was tied beneath his shirt and hoodie.
“Just a pack now.” Shaun smirked. “You know… Because it’s not cold anymore? No ice?”
“You’re such a loser. Here, lift up your shirt.”
“No, I can go do it myself.”
Shaun was already grimacing as he began to sit up. Katy set a firm hand on his shoulder and stared into his eyes. “I know you can take a punch, so I’m not afraid to hurt you if that’s what it takes to make you better.”
Shaun’s eyes fluttered. “What kind of doctor are you supposed to be?”
“Haven’t you met my mom?” she asked, her voice dripping with sarcasm. “She’ll tell you: I’m not a doctor. But I’ll gladly drag you to the hospital and watch you explain bruises from an alien dragon’s tentacles to someone who is.”
She wagged a finger toward the ceiling. Shaun opened his mouth to protest again then sighed. He raised his hoodie and shirt with a resigned expression.
It hurt Katy just to see Shaun like this. His torso was practically spotted with bruises. The worst of all was an angry purple welt over his solar plexus. Shaun said this was where Wenwu had punched him into the river at Ta-Lo.
Katy felt glad to have missed that. She could deal with the aftermath of Shaun’s fight. At least, sort of. But watching him get hurt and remembering it afterwards might have been too much to bear.
Shaun had wrapped an ice pack over the bruise with gauze earlier that night, and as he said it was lukewarm now. Katy took a fresh ice pack from the coffee table and a clean roll of gauze from a bag of supplies they had bought at the corner store.
First, she unpinned the old gauze and took off the ice pack. It had left a wet patch on Shaun’s bruise and she dabbed it gently with a clean towel. Shaun did his best to avoid looking her way, but for Katy that only made the awkwardness stand out more.
They had been close since high school, but there was close and then there was close.
Shaun had never needed looking after like this before. In fact, she couldn’t remember him ever being sick. Colds and flus were probably something he learned to ignore during those years of brutal training he had told her about on their flight to Macao.
But Shaun had looked out for her since they were kids. Whether that meant bringing her ice cream when she was curled up in bed, or listening to her sob over her worst breakups in college, she had always been able to depend on him for support. Now, she was determined to repay the favor, no matter how weird it felt to be toweling off his shredded abs like a nurse in some schlocky action movie.
When the bruise was dry Katy pressed the new ice pack onto it. Shaun drew in a sharp breath and she muttered “Sorry,” but he only shook his head. She started to wrap the clean gauze around him, pressing one end over the ice pack to hold it in place, but when she tried to pass the gauze around his back she found herself leaning awfully close to Shaun’s face.
It was an embarrassing little dance to change her hand on the ice pack, retrieve the gauze behind Shaun’s back, then lean in close beside his face as she stretched the gauze around his far side. How had Shaun even managed this alone in the bathroom when he couldn’t lift his arms without cringing?
Katy sighed. “Fuck it. Bear with me here, I’m just going to get this done.”
She stretched one leg over Shaun’s lap, straddling him on her knees without putting any weight on Shaun. From here she could easily pass the gauze from hand to hand behind him.
“Sorry,” she mumbled. Shaun nodded, looking a little flushed. A stray thought crossed Katy’s mind and she laughed softly, biting her lip to hide her smile.
“What?” Shaun asked.
“Well… I was gonna say, ‘This must be the most action you’ve seen in a while,’ but obviously that depends on which kind.” Shaun burst out laughing and wore a chagrinned smile.
“If your mom came out right now she’d kill me.”
“She’d have to get through Waipo first, she’s been praying for us to get together since senior year.”
“Back when you were pining for Ryan.”
Katy stopped wrapping up the gauze and furrowed her brow. “I was never pining for Ryan.”
“You went to prom with him?” Shaun said, obviously puzzled.
“Yeah, as a last resort because I couldn’t stand waiting to be asked out any longer.”
“Who were you waiting for?”
Katy shook her head, looked down and pinned the last of the gauze in place. “Doesn’t matter, that was a long time ago anyway.”
She leaned back to drop the towel and empty gauze wrapper in the plastic bag of supplies beside the couch. As Katy wobbled to one side, Shaun’s hand slipped to the small of her back, gently but securely propping her up. She jolted up and away from his touch a little too quickly, lurched forward and set her hands on Shaun’s shoulders to steady herself. They stayed frozen like this for a few seconds, staring wide-eyed at each other and unsure of what to think, until Katy clambered off of Shaun and back to her seat.
They sat in silence for minutes that felt like hours to Katy. She tried to watch the movie but took in none of it. Instead, her mind was replaying the last few agonizing minutes over and over again. The whole time, she felt herself blushing and was sure her cheeks looked beet red. But couldn’t bring herself to glance at Shaun.
He was the one to break the silence after softly laying his hand on her arm first.
“Could you do me a favor?” he asked.
“Mm-hmm.” Katy still couldn’t look Shaun in the eye, but she was glad to hear him finally ask for help.
“Would you pass me the dumplings?”
Katy opened a container of leftover dumplings she had brought in with the haul of snacks and grabbed chopsticks from the jumbled pile of utensils. But as she passed them to Shaun, she caught a glimpse of the red and raw skin along his knuckles. She jerked the chopsticks back.
“You know what? I’ll just help you. I don’t want you dropping any on my mom’s couch.” She glanced at Shawn’s face again and saw him nodding with a goofy smile.
“What’s got you so happy?”
“You have the dorkiest smile I’ve ever seen right now.”
“I’m just… glad to be home I guess.”
Katy pretended to retch and they both chuckled. “I swear you must have a concussion. Alright, open wide.”
She scooched closer to Shaun and held the container of dumplings between them. Each time she dangled one in front of him he bit it off the chopsticks and muttered “thank you” with his mouth full. When Shaun shook his head at the last dumpling she kept on eating them herself, getting more absorbed in the movie while mindlessly snacking.
“You know,” Shaun spoke up. “Not to team up with your mom or anything, but you would make a pretty good doctor. Or a nurse, at least.”
Katy nudged Shaun with her head. “That’s a huge compliment considering you’re the world’s worst patient.”
“Really though, if that interview at the Continental doesn’t work out you should think it over.”
Katy set down her chopsticks and sighed. She kept her eyes on the TV but could feel Shaun’s gaze burrowing into her.
“You missed the interview, right?” Katy nodded and Shaun asked, “Because of me?”
“Because I was off saving the world with you, not the same thing.”
“Still, I’m sorry Katy.”
She flapped a hand dismissively. “Don’t be. I was actually just thinking I’ve finally got this career stuff figured out.”
She offered Shaun another dumpling and he took it. This time instead of thanking Katy he stared at her, waiting to hear what she had planned. She took a long look into his dark brown eyes and felt her lips curl into a smile.
“So, if you’re going to be doing the whole superhero thing from now on—”
“I don’t have superpowers,” Shaun cut in. Katy snorted with laughter.
“Believe me, I know. I’m the one that dragged your ass back here. But that doesn’t make you any less of a hero, and my bet is that soon you’ll be off making the world a better place again.”
Shaun glanced up at the ceiling and sighed deeply. “I want to say that’s not true but…” He met Katy’s eyes and she nodded, understanding perfectly. Shaun wasn’t the kind of guy to let a gift like this go to waste, not when it could help so many people. “But how do you factor into that?” he asked.
Katy slapped a hand to her chest and let out an exaggerated gasp. “Excuse me, who is your best friend in this dimension or the next?”
“You are,” Shaun muttered under his breath.
“And who has been getting you out of trouble every day since we were teenagers?”
“It’s actually the other way arou-”
“Me,” Katy interrupted. “So that tells me one thing: you need me. Whether it’s parking cars, fighting crazy Dungeons and Dragons monsters, changing your ice packs or helping you through your daddy issues, you need me around.” Katy shrugged. “So who am I to deny you my talents?”
Shaun smiled and watched the TV as he considered what Katy had said. “So you want to be my… sidekick?”
Katy made the sound of a game show buzzer.
“Your partner,” she corrected Shaun. “Fifty-fifty. You look after the world, I look after you. Deal?”
Katy held out her hand with a cheeky grin. But to her surprise Shaun looked deep in thought, with the same solemn expression that she had seen as he first described his childhood to her. She was beginning to worry that something was wrong when Shaun cleared his throat and looked into her eyes.
“Listen, I don’t have a benefits package or a retirement plan. And honestly, I don’t know the first thing about what it takes to be a hero, what’s next for me or if this whole week was just a once in a lifetime fluke. But if you want to come along for the ride, I would be forever grateful.”
Shaun took Katy’s hand in his. He slowly curled his stiff, bruised fingers around her palm and squeezed lightly. She squeezed back harder than she meant to, trying to hold in the tears that she could feel coming, but Shaun hardly winced.
“Because you’re right,” he continued. “I do need you around. You remind me of who I want to be and what I’m doing this for. So if you-”
“God,” Katy laughed through the tears rolling down her cheeks. “Can you just hurry up and say yes already? You’re killing me here.”
Shaun laughed along with her. He leaned in close, pecked Katy’s cheek then fell back against the couch cushions. Katy’s jaw dropped and she clapped a hand to her cheek. While she was turning red, Shaun blanched at her reaction.
“Too much?” he asked. He set a hand on Katy’s shoulder and she patted it reassuringly, still holding the spot where he had kissed her.
“No, no no. Just right but uh…” Katy composed herself and sat up straight, giving him a haughty look. “Don’t think I’m going to fall for you just because you’re a viral celebrity.”
“Isn’t that the worst? I saved two entire dimensions but as far as anyone here knows I’m the karate kid from a WorldStar fight.”
“We can capitalize on that,” Katy suggested. She stretched out on the couch, softly resting her head on Shaun’s lap. “You should have started a TikTok account months ago anyway. We both know you can’t sing—”
“—but you could be one of those thirst trap guys who reacts to martial arts videos. Or one of those thirst trap guys who reacts to cute animal videos.”
“It sounds like I have to take my shirt off for all of these.”
Katy snapped her fingers in Shaun’s face. “Duh! It’s called building a brand, try and keep up.”
They talked on and on, happily ignoring the movie as they imagined their futures and reminisced about the trip to Ta-Lo. Shaun nodded off somewhere around the crash with the iceberg but Katy was content to lie on the couch with his limp arm draped over her, listening to the steady sound of his breath behind her.
When the movie was over she clicked off the TV, eased out from under Shaun’s arm then gently laid him down across the couch. His legs dangled over the armrest but Katy decided he looked comfortable enough. She spread a blanket over him and left him to sleep.
After tidying up the snacks and leftovers she was ready to turn out the lamp beside the couch. But her eyes drifted to Shaun again. He looked so peaceful dozing with his arms curled under the blanket that she caught herself staring.
Katy pulled the lamp’s switch. Even without its light the glow of the street outside the living room window was enough to see by. She knelt down beside the couch and softly brushed a hand through Shaun’s hair.
“Goodnight, bus boy,” she whispered. “The world might not know how great a guy you are… but someone does.”
She pressed her lips to Shaun’s forehead, rose to her feet then tiptoed to her bedroom.
They both dreamt of Ta-Lo that night, and of watching the floating lanterns from the riverbank. When they had each been mournful and weary, but felt relief sitting nestled in each other’s arms.