It was early in the morning, but the sun was already shining through the window. Cheng Xinyan squinted her eyes from the sudden light and sighed tiredly. It was almost the end of her night shift; just a few files to complete and she was free. She entered her office and gratefully sank into the chair, stifling a yawn. She rested with her eyes closed for a few seconds, then she shook herself. The files, right, she should get on with that. She tried to force her tired brain to cooperate when her gaze fell on the calendar and today’s date.
For a while she sat motionless. It’s not that she forgot, she hadn’t. She had just made herself not think about it for a while. About that day a year ago when the world changed.
Slowly she clicked open the first file and she looked at the screen, but she wasn’t really seeing the patient’s data. Her mind had already gone back in time to that day and the days before, and to the two people who weren’t here anymore. The sun, bright and burning outside, reminded her of one day, especially, at the university a long time ago.
She remembered it so clearly.
They were sitting on the grass, hiding from the sun in the shadow of a tree. She was fanning herself with her book. Shen Wei was checking his notes. She was giving his notebook jealous glances admiring his beautiful calligraphy. She fought the drowsiness, but it was a losing battle. It was decidedly too hot to study, but she started to half-heartedly riffle through her book anyway. Until she noticed Sun Qian sitting on the bench nearby. Sun Qian was her biggest crush from that time. She wore floral dresses, she laughed a lot, and her dark hair framed her pretty face in artful waves.
Sun Qian had worn a floral dress that time, too, with her lovely shoulders bare. The dress was yellow. Or maybe orange? And she was sucking on a round pink lollipop. Cheng Xinyan at first just gaped at her, enthralled, but then sighed with frustration and violently dropped her book on the grass. Shen Wei looked at her, startled. She gestured to Sun Qian.
“The ways she licks that lollipop is indecent,” she complained. “How can I concentrate on anything when she does that?”
She turned to Shen Wei expecting an amused, but always polite, comment about her taste in women. Or maybe an acknowledgment of said indecency and, again, always polite, but gently mocking commiseration for her woes. She found none of those things. Instead there was a quiet anguish on his face and a desperate longing in his eyes. She wanted to ask so much, to uncover at least a little bit of the mystery of his life, but she also didn’t want to breach the wall he had so clearly erected around his feelings.
“Shen Wei,” she said softly instead.
He looked at her, eyes not really seeing her now, but some painful moment in the past. It lasted for a few seconds, but then his face smoothed out, a smile back on his lips.
“I don’t know, should I even try to ask her out?” she said, forcing a cheerful note in her voice. “She’s out of my league, don’t you think?”
He looked at her with gratitude in his eyes. For not asking him, she knew. She sighed with pretend sadness, turning her eyes back on Sun Qian, who had thankfully finished her lollipop.
“Hmmmm, you’re right,” Shen Wei said and even without looking she knew he was smiling again. “She is out of your league.”
When she looked at him, incredulous, he smiled sweetly and asked, “Oh, did you want me to lie?”
That troll... She laughed and slapped his arm with a book. And that memory of them, with laughter and sun and sexy lollipop licking, with a little dash of mystery thrown in, stayed with her till this day.
Cheng Xinyan smiled now, wistfully. To that memory and to the Shen Wei she knew back then.
She couldn’t say she had always known there was something different about him. He was Shen Wei, her friend from university, mysterious, yes, and sometimes a little weird, usually polite and unflappable. And always, always beautiful, even when woken in the middle of the night by a bunch of drunken students who didn’t want to accept his refusal to join the fun (not one of her most shining moment, she had to admit). But he was human. Really unusual and fascinating, but human.
Only, as she found out a year ago, not so much.
She didn’t get the whole story all at once, just in bits and pieces through the days. Dixingren with special powers, an evil megalomaniac hell-bent on destroying the world, SID team members not being who she thought they were. And last but not least Shen Wei’s secret.
She knew there was something hidden, something strange in the world. And it wasn’t just Zu Ma, her little brother, that she didn’t even have time to mourn properly before people started dying in the streets. Some things she started to figure out after Zu Ma’s death. She gathered some facts, still only half-believing what they were telling her. And then she didn’t have to search for the truth anymore, because everything blew up and she was slammed in the face with it.
But still there was one piece of the puzzle missing. So after everything she cornered Da Qing and said “Tell me about Shen Wei.” And he did.
Later she sat there, in some sort of daze, looking at Da Qing without a word. She expected something big; there were too many secrets around Shen Wei. But the answer was way beyond that. The mysterious all powerful Dixing emissary born 10 000 years ago, masquerading as a normal human – she hadn’t expected that.
“Are you all right, Doctor Cheng?” Da Qing asked her.
“Yes... Yes, I am,” she said. “It’s just so...”
She laughed suddenly, a short, startled laugh, and Da Qing looked at her, alarmed. She smiled at him reassuringly.
“It’s nothing,” she said. “It’s just... Do you remember our session and what you said during it? I didn’t understand then, but it makes so much sense right now.”
Da Qing laughed and she joined him. And then suddenly the tears came, and Da Qing stopped laughing, and held her as she cried into his shoulder. His arms shook slightly as he embraced her. She realized that he was crying, too.
“I miss them so much,” he said quietly, after they both had calmed down a little bit.
“I know,” she said. After a while she added, “I wish I found out sooner. I would... I don’t know what I would do. Something. Yelled at Shen Wei, maybe. Or maybe not. Maybe I would be too scared. Black-Cloaked Envoy sounds very intimidating.”
She was rambling, she knew that. She forced herself to stop the stream of words.
“How did you find out?” she asked.
Da Qing smiled, and it wasn’t a sad smile this time. He looked as he was reliving a pleasant memory.
“Zhu Hong told the rest of us,” he said. “She found out first. You should see the way she looked at him after. Her eyes were as wide as saucers. We instantly knew something had happened. But when she told us...”
He giggled suddenly.
“Oh, boy, you should have seen the reactions,” he said. “Wang Zheng and Sang Zan took it the best, I think. But Xiao Guo almost fainted from the shock. Lao Chu – I don’t really know what he was thinking. But imagine finding out your biggest superhero idol was masquerading all this time under your nose as the mild-mannered professor. He was shocked, too, I think, you just couldn’t tell by looking at him. He had that same grumpy and closed-off look on his face he always did, just maybe more so. Ling Jing was the one who had the hardest time of believing it. He tried to force Zhu Hong to admit that it was just a stupid joke.”
Da Qing stopped talking, eyes filled with joy at the memory.
“And?” she urged him to continue.
“And when he finally did believe it, he got scared that he had been too disrespectful to Professor Shen. And totally convinced that he would be severely punished by the Black-Cloaked Envoy for that disrespect.”
She laughed and Da Qing grinned at her.
“And what about you?” she asked.
“Me? Oh, well...“ He paused for a few seconds. “I was surprised, I think, but not that much. It made sense, you know? In retrospect it made perfect sense.”
Da Qing fell silent, a faraway look in his eyes.
“I wonder sometimes,” he said softly after a while. “The Black-Cloaked Envoy was really powerful. Maybe it was possible for him to do something. Maybe they are out there somewhere, gazing down on us.”
He smiled sheepishly at her. She smiled back and squeezed his hand without words. And with that shared smile she felt as if her pain eased off a little bit and a tiny sharp shard of sorrow melted inside her heart.
Tentative knocking pulled her out of her thoughts. A few seconds later Nurse Kong Liping peeped inside.
“Oh, you’re still here, Doctor Cheng,” she said, smiling with relief. “Professor Xu sent these files. He says it’s urgent.”
“Put them on the desk,” Cheng Xinyan said. “I’ll take a look.”
“Thank you, Doctor Cheng.”
Nurse Kong smiled apologetically and left.
Cheng Xinyan sighed. So much for leaving soon. But she couldn’t motivate herself to open the files. Her brain kept shoving more memories at her and she found it hard to resist sinking into them. Like those few times when she met Chief Zhao after everything that happened. It had been tough. Sometimes she thought that she would prefer not to be one of those lucky few who knew. Then maybe she could find comfort in the knowledge that at least one of them made it out alive. And that always led her to thinking about Shen Wei and all those things she thought she knew about him.
Her thoughts drifted again, to that first time she saw Shen Wei and Zhao Yunlan together, here in the same office.
She hasn’t seen Shen Wei in ages. They talked a few times, on the phone (and she found it charming, even if a bit frustrating, too, that he still didn’t have a mobile phone), but it was always strictly professional – Shen Wei needing some information from her field of expertise. She was surprised when he called a few hours ago, his voice seemingly polite as always, but she could hear a worry underneath.
In the past she had observed him gently reject advances of men and women enthralled with his ethereal beauty, who mistook his polite indifference for shyness or invitation to try harder. She was never one of those people, even though her first impression of him had been shallow wow, he’s so beautiful. She never saw him express romantic interest in anyone. He was a mystery and that made him an endlessly fascinating topic of gossip for her friends at the university.
And now he was sitting in front of her, radiating anxiety and worry. Chief Zhao Yunlan, sprawled in his chair, looked much more relaxed. He was joking and smiling, but she could clearly see the sharp mind behind all this easy-going facade. She couldn’t tell why Chief Zhao had lost his sight. Physically everything seemed fine. But she had a feeling that they weren’t telling her everything. It was par for the course with Shen Wei; he always kept things close to his chest.
There was an easy, familiar intimacy between them. Her first thought when she saw them coming together into her office was aww, Shen Wei finally found a boyfriend. And she instantly silently reprimanded herself then for making assumptions, but it appeared she wasn’t wrong in her first impression.
She could see the affection between them. From Chief Zhao gently teasing Shen Wei about his worried face to Shen Wei’s said worried face and his eyes full of love and tenderness.
“I am a lucky person, I am tough, I won’t die,” Chief Zhao said, trying to ease the tension.
But he was clearly unsuccessful, because the look of anguish and concern didn’t disappear from Shen Wei’s face. Instead it became even stronger.
Just remembering those words now made her heart squeeze painfully. She breathed deeply, trying to clear her mind and calm the storm of emotions inside.
It wasn’t the first time it happened, this reminiscing of the days past. Sometimes she was sitting behind this very desk and this feeling came over her. This overwhelming feeling of sadness and sorrow. As if she could be consumed with grief for those who made this normal life possible. Sometimes she got angry, too. At the people on the street for needing to be saved, and at Shen Wei and Zhao Yunlan for being self-sacrificing fools. And then at herself that she didn’t do more back then. That she didn’t help more.
She sighed and stopped fighting with herself. She let herself remember.
She remembered well that day when DOS issued the evacuation notice and patients started to panic. She heard Guo Changcheng’s speech and she knew she couldn’t hide in the hospital anymore. The hospital, that in the past had sometimes seemed like a war zone to her, suddenly became a safe space compared to what was happening outside. But she couldn’t stay here. She had to go out there, to help people, to help the SID team and Chief Zhao.
And then she saw Zhao Yunlan being tortured and that figure in white, with a golden mask on his face, threatening to make all of humanity suffer. They all saw it. After that the SID team decided to go to Dixing to rescue their Chief and Shen Wei. She said goodbye to them, fear mixing with awe for those three people ready to face the evil head on – Da Qing with the look of sorrow and determination on that youthful face of his, that young woman Zhu Hong so self-assured and strong-willed, but with uncertainty and distress hiding beneath the surface, and Chu Shuzhi, serious and unflinching with the worried look in his eyes. She stayed to help people here while they went to fight the biggest battle.
From those last moments she only remembered the strange dark energy hitting her, feeling suddenly weak and woozy, and then nothing. She woke up, half lying on Cong Bo. And it was very quiet for a few seconds until the air filled with anxious voices, people around them waking up, scared and disoriented.
She could still see this scene so clearly – she got up, started to help people, feeling tentatively hopeful. Because it seemed like the worst had passed. And then she saw the SID team and she smiled with relief, not noticing at first how utterly defeated they looked despite everything indicating that they just won. She had asked “Where is Shen Wei and Chief Zhao?” Nobody answered her, but the look of loss and grief on their faces told her everything she needed to know.
That memory was the worst, and she knew what would happen now. And she let go of trying to calm herself down and she let herself cry for a little bit.
After a few minutes she wiped her eyes, feeling properly wept out and much calmer. With relief she pulled the files closer and opened the first one.
After an hour of work she wrote the last note and closed her computer. She brought Professor Xu’s files to the nurses’ room, where she got involved in looking at pictures sent by one of their colleagues, who had just had a baby. Then she listened to Nurse Kong’s anecdotes about her unruly cat.
She admired the pink wrinkled newborn in the photos, and she laughed at the cat’s antics. It all seemed so normal, those little things that people did every day, and so soothing. She felt deep gratitude for the big sacrifices that made it possible.
When she finally left the hospital the streets were already full of people – some of them just milling around in the sunshine, some hurrying to work, children with their little backpacks toddling after their parents. She felt the tension slowly leaving her body and she felt, maybe not good entirely, but a little bit better, despite the date and what it represented.
Thank you, she thought looking up at the clear blue sky. She could almost see Shen Wei smiling down at her. And she smiled back at him.