It was some while past midnight when Shen Wei gave up on sleeping and got up, cautious not to disturb Zhao Yunlan. Who tried to hold onto him even while deeply asleep, so that Shen Wei's progress out of bed was a full half hour of making small movements and waiting to be sure that Zhao Yunlan had readjusted without waking. But finally he stood, the hotel carpet coarse under his bare feet, and hesitated over the test he knew he needed to make.
He closed his eyes. Reached out with his dark energy instead, pushing his senses outwards as far as he could. Every human life in the hotel stood out vivid for him, sleeping or waking, and he felt the scrabble of the small lives of rodents in the foundations and the silvery flutter of nesting birds on the roof. A solitary someone walking the streets outside. The brushstrokes of air currents…
And yet it was all muted, all slightly out of focus. He should be able to see more, see further. Still with his eyes closed he donned his robes, and that slight use of his power pulsed through his dark energy like a heavy stone tossed into a pond, when it shouldn't have caused so much as a ripple.
He summoned a portal, watching its complex pattern-state bloom across his awareness and then carry him with it, a shortcut across the realm of solidity. Something changed nearby at the last second but he was already gone —
He arrived next to the Dixing portal, in bright moonlight painting the park in stark white and black. His eyes were open again and so he couldn't see it, but it was a nagging awareness in the other-sense part of his mind and he couldn't have failed to notice its presence. He took a moment to catch his breath (although he shouldn't have needed to) and then closed his eyes and again reached out.
Tightness gripped his chest that had no physical counterpart. He was so limited. That brief use of his power had siphoned off enough of his dark energy that only his immediate surroundings stood out in clarity to him — all beyond was an inky blur with unformed points of light. Even though this was what he had suspected, what he had in fact come out to test, it shocked him.
He opened his eyes. Stared at where the portal hung, invisible. If it came to it, he wasn't sure whether he would have enough energy to open it now. He instinctively shied away from the realisation, but he couldn't make himself unthink it.
He started at the voice. Hadn't he taken such care — But now he remembered that last-second flicker, too late to realise what it meant.
"Shen Wei, what are you doing?" Zhao Yunlan strode towards him, unlaced boots shoved on over pyjamas, his hair sticking up in all directions. He looked angry. "If you think you're going back to Dixing without me —!"
"No," Shen Wei said.
"So what are you doing? Because I know what this looks like." Zhao Yunlan waved a hand encompassingly and Shen Wei belatedly realised that it must indeed look a great deal like that — himself in his Envoy robes, standing next to the gateway. And Zhao Yunlan had rushed after him, ready to follow him to Dixing in pyjamas and with no backup, no weapon.
"I'm sorry for alarming you," Shen Wei said, contrite. "I tried not to wake you. I was only… conducting a test."
"Yeah?" Zhao Yunlan scrubbed a hand over his face, and shivered. Still annoyed. But some of the brittle tension went out of him.
"You're cold —"
"I'm fine. What sort of test?" And he'd been scared, too, as well as angry, Shen Wei realised. He must have woken just in time to see Shen Wei, robed, disappear. He could only have arrived here so fast by running most of the way, and the destination would have been only a guess.
"I was testing my dark energy," Shen Wei said.
"By going to Dixing?"
"No, only by travelling within Haixing. This place was just the first location I thought of."
Zhao Yunlan released a long breath and rocked back on his heels. "Okay. So other than giving me a heart attack, what did you discover? And take your mask off."
Shen Wei did so, with some reluctance. He would have liked to be able to continue to hide behind it. He noticed Zhao Yunlan shiver again. "Shall we walk back?"
"Sure," Zhao Yunlan said. His gaze was sharp even through the night. "I guess that answers my question about how you found making portals."
Shen Wei fell into step beside him, their rhythms easily matching. It was easier to talk like this, not having to look directly at Zhao Yunlan but with him still there, close. "My dark energy has continued to decrease," he said.
Zhao Yunlan reached for his arm, a quick touch. "Do you think if you rested for a while…"
Shen Wei shook his head. "The capacity of it is reducing," he said. "As if it drains faster than I can accumulate more. Slowly, but persistently."
"You thought before that it was an injury from Ye Zun," Zhao Yunlan said, and Shen Wei hated how he still flinched to hear the name. "But if that's the case, why would it keep on getting worse?"
"I don't know," Shen Wei said, tiredly.
"We'll get to the bottom of it, and fix it," Zhao Yunlan declared, with a confidence that Shen Wei appreciated even if he wasn't at all convinced by, and didn't think Zhao Yunlan was, either.
They walked most of the rest of the way back in silence, lit by the bright moon, waxing large over the city. "If you weren't trying to scare the hell out of me by making me think you were going off on some crazy mission on your own, why are you wearing your Envoy robes?" Zhao Yunlan asked, finally.
"Oh." Shen Wei felt mildly embarrassed. "I intended to be back before you noticed me missing, so I didn't dress first."
Zhao Yunlan grinned in sudden delight. "You mean you're also wandering around outside in your pyjamas? Hei-Laoge, I would never have thought it of you!"
"I'm not," Shen Wei protested, since that was the point of wearing his robes, but he couldn't dissuade Zhao Yunlan from his amusement. And they must have made an odd pair walking into the hotel as it was, although the staff member on the desk looked too half-asleep to notice.
Back in their room, Shen Wei let the robes dissolve back into his nightclothes, earning another told-you-so grin from Zhao Yunlan. "Shall we go back to bed?" he suggested.
"I'm awake now," Zhao Yunlan said, sliding coyly into Shen Wei's personal space.
Shen Wei kissed him back, and let his hands run up Zhao Yunlan's back, telling himself as Zhao Yunlan guided them gently towards the bed that he did want this, he must do.
But Zhao Yunlan paused with his fingers on the buttons of Shen Wei's pyjama top. "Is something wrong?" he asked.
"No," Shen Wei said, because nothing was wrong, except for him.
Zhao Yunlan sighed deeply. "Come here," he said, and stopped working on the buttons. Instead he just pulled Shen Wei into bed with him as they were and held him tightly, firmly, arms wrapped the whole way around him. "Better?" he asked, quietly.
Shen Wei nodded, feeling useless. He hated how Zhao Yunlan had been treating him for the last few days like he was about to break, and yet… it was uncomfortably close to what he needed. Being held now eased him, even as he felt guilty about it.
Eventually Zhao Yunlan shifted position and soon after that fell asleep against him, warm and soft and comforting. Shen Wei lay awake, wishing very much that he could sleep too, but grateful that at least he had Zhao Yunlan there with him.
The alarm went off and Zhao Yunlan reached for it with a groan, unable to remember now why it had felt like a good idea for him to promise to be back at work today like normal.
Shen Wei, unsurprisingly, was already up and dressed. "Good morning," he said, and laid a stack of neatly folded clothes onto the empty side of the bed.
Zhao Yunlan sat up with a yawn. Shen Wei looked entirely too awake for someone who had been wandering around Dragon City during the early hours. "You're going to the university?"
"Yes, I've got classes this afternoon," Shen Wei said.
"Want a lift?" Zhao Yunlan sifted through the clothes Shen Wei had set out for him, and then bundled them under his arm as he got out of bed. "I just need to grab a shower."
Shen Wei shook his head. "It's a nice day, I'll walk. But we could have breakfast together first."
"I'll be quick," Zhao Yunlan said, and was. When he emerged, hair still damp, Shen Wei was waiting for him with a new leather satchel slung over his shoulder, and Zhao Yunlan's new phone, wallet and keys laid out on the side. Zhao Yunlan put them all into the pockets of his jeans. The new key for the jeep had finally arrived yesterday evening and had been ridiculously expensive, but at least he could use his own car again now.
They walked down to the hotel's breakfast room together and Shen Wei did his best to hide his dissatisfaction with what was on offer. It made Zhao Yunlan freshly determined that they needed to find a new place as quickly as possible so that Shen Wei could have a proper kitchen again. He would have to print some listings out while he was at the SID, and they could look over them together later.
"Where would you like to live?" he asked, as they sat down. "In roughly the same neighbourhood, or somewhere else?"
"With you?" Shen Wei said.
It was half a question, and Zhao Yunlan stared at him incredulously. "Yes, of course with me. Unless — did you want to keep having your own place?" It hadn't occurred to him that Shen Wei might want to, but of course he'd never actually given up his own flat even if it had come to mostly serve the function of a walk-in bookcase-slash-closet.
"No!" Shen Wei said, quickly, his ears turning pink. "I do want to live with you."
"Well, good." Zhao Yunlan grinned at him, his heart surging — he had the sense that they'd just crossed some sort of relationship border. "Any location in particular?"
"Somewhere convenient for us both," Shen Wei said. "I don't mind beyond that."
"Okay," Zhao Yunlan said. He would interpret that as within walking distance of the university, since only one of them could drive. "We should start looking for apartments, then."
"Yes," Shen Wei said, and hesitated. "Or…"
"Or what?" Zhao Yunlan asked. "You want your own place after all?"
Shen Wei ignored the tease. "We could buy a house," he said, shyly.
"A house?" Zhao Yunlan paused with his chopsticks halfway to his mouth. They could. A house with a, a proper big kitchen, and a living room with comfy furniture, and a garden because maybe one of them would turn out to have an interest in maintaining it, and a study for Shen Wei upstairs, and a catflap on the door…
"Zhao Yunlan?" Shen Wei asked, looking anxious. About to walk the suggestion back.
"That sounds great," Zhao Yunlan said. "It sounds perfect. Let's buy a house."
Shen Wei ducked his head, smiled. "Really?"
"Really," Zhao Yunlan said. He grinned. "We'll look into it this evening."
"All right," Shen Wei said, smiling too — a small smile, but one that didn't leave his lips for the rest of the meal. He still wasn't eating enough to Zhao Yunlan's eyes, but it didn't seem the right time to call him on it.
Shen Wei left as soon as they were both done. Zhao Yunlan repeated the offer to drive him, but Shen Wei again turned him down. So they parted outside the hotel, and Zhao Yunlan went to get his car from the garage, and then drove to the SID alone. It was a sunny day. He felt happier than he had in a while.
Part of him was aware that maybe he should be less happy — that he should give more weight to the events in the middle of the night, to the terrible desolation in Shen Wei's voice as he'd talked about his dwindling power. But it was too much to think about constantly. He would come back to it at the proper time, and start dealing with it, but just then he thought he should be allowed to luxuriate in the delight of knowing that Shen Wei wanted to go on living with him, to buy a house together —
A familiar flicker from an alleyway made him jam the brakes on hard, provoking a horn blast from the car behind him. Zhao Yunlan ignored it and swung himself out of the jeep, already running. That was dark energy he'd seen. "Hey!" he yelled, narrowing in on the person running away from the shop with the smashed window.
A tendril of dark energy lashed out above his head, dragging down a hanging sign from another shop. Zhao Yunlan ducked to avoid it and used the seconds the thief had wasted on standing still to use his power to catch him up and tackle him to the ground. He searched his own pockets automatically for handcuffs before remembering he didn't have any on him. Well. He pulled off the thief's belt and used it to buckle his hands together behind his back.
"What were you doing?" he demanded. He pulled the thief up, and saw underneath him… shoes. Three pairs of high-end shoes. "These were worth blowing your cover in Haixing for?"
The thief shrugged. He wasn't much more than a kid, really. "I wasn't going to stay long."
"What, just long enough to grab some stuff you wanted?"
Another sulky shrug was the answer.
Zhao Yunlan sighed. "Idiot. You're lucky you ran into me and not Hei Pao Shi."
"I heard Hei Pao Shi's too weak to catch anyone these days," the kid said, in arrogant challenge.
Zhao Yunlan froze up. "What? Where did you hear that?"
"Dunno. Everyone knows it." The kid rolled his shoulders. "I'm sorry about the shoes, okay?"
"Not okay," Zhao Yunlan said, grimly. "You're coming back to the SID with me until we arrange to ship you back to Dixing." He hauled the kid upright. They'd attracted quite a crowd. "Who's the shoe-shop owner?" he called.
A man in a suit and tie pushed forwards. "Me."
Zhao Yunlan checked for collaborating nods from the other business owners. "I'm arresting this idiot. Is this all he stole from you?"
"Yes," the man said, eyeing the very expensive shoes now lying in street dust. "But how did he —"
"That's a matter for the police, not for you to worry about," Zhao Yunlan said. "Have a great day."
He hauled the Dixing kid through the stares and towards the jeep, where he shoved him into the passenger seat and buckled him in with his arms still secured behind his back. "Don't try anything, understand?"
"Who are you, anyway?" the kid asked, still sulking.
"The Lord Guardian of the SID," Zhao Yunlan said, grandly, and was gratified to see the kid gulp. "And the rumour you've heard about Hei Pao Shi isn't true, so when you get back to Dixing you'd best warn your friends in case they decide to be as stupid as you."
Zhao Yunlan drove the rest of the way in silence. When they arrived at Bright Street he opened the car door and waited for the kid to get out before taking him firmly by the shoulder and walking him inside the SID. "Morning, everyone," he said, loudly. He shook the kid slightly. "Idiot from Dixing. Petty thievery. Someone toss him in a cell for me."
Zhu Hong took the kid off his hands. Not that they technically had any cells, but the interrogation room did in a pinch. "Where's everyone else?" Zhao Yunlan asked.
"Chu Shuzhi and Guo Changcheng are following up on a report of suspicious activity," Wang Zheng said. "Sang Zan's upstairs and Lin Jing's in the lab. Da Qing went out somewhere not long ago, but I'm not sure where."
"Not sure I want to know," Zhao Yunlan said. He tossed himself into a chair by her computer. "Do you know how to sort out insurance paperwork?"
She gave him a slightly pitying look. "Of course. For your apartment?"
"What can I bribe you with to do it for me?"
"Make him do it himself," Zhu Hong said, coming back into the main room.
"You do need to do it yourself really," Wang Zheng agreed. "I can help you, though."
"Acceptable." Zhao Yunlan put his feet up on the desk. "Any cases today?"
"Nothing exciting," Zhu Hong said. "I'm going to head off soon."
He waved a finger at her. "You can't just do the exciting parts of this job, you know."
She shrugged at him. "Of course I can. I've got actual Yashou business when I'm done with my community outreach project for the day."
Sadly he couldn't even claim to have taught her the sarcasm — as a snake it was innate. Or so it seemed to him.
He remembered. "Hey, have you heard any rumours from the Yashou about Shen Wei?"
She frowned. "No. Like what?"
"The kid I brought in claims it's common knowledge that Hei Pao Shi's too weak to be a threat in Haixing now." He hated saying it aloud. It felt like betraying a trust.
"No, I haven't heard that," Zhu Hong said. She looked like she was thinking carefully about to say next, but ultimately came down on the side of saying nothing at all.
Zhao Yunlan sighed. "Well. I guess I'd better get on with the arrest forms for him. And getting him sent down to Dixing."
"I'm afraid you also still have to finish writing up the reports for the Ministry on the arson case," Wang Zheng said, apologetically. "I've had an email reminder."
"Oh, good," Zhao Yunlan said, gloomily. "Are you sure we don't have any exciting new cases?"
"They'd just make more paperwork," Zhu Hong pointed out, with the delight of someone whose plans didn't include any.
Zhao Yunlan took himself off to his office and reluctantly settled down to work. He wasn't about to admit it, but the normality of filling in forms actually turned out to be something of a relief after all the recent stress. And when he got distracted he started idly checking out some estate agent websites. Just to see.
Lunchtime came and went, and then Lao-Chu and Xiao-Guo returned dragging two more Dixingren with them. Who had also dared to come up to the surface on the strength of the rumours that Hei Pao Shi was no longer an obstacle, but had then got into a fight, nominally about whether to stay or not but actually about their entire relationship. A fight which had involved dark energy, and a lot of bystander attention. Apparently they'd tried to continue all through the process of Lao-Chu and Xiao-Guo trying to arrest them.
"Maybe we'll be really lucky and this is our quota of stupidity out of the way for the rest of the week," Zhao Yunlan sighed, after this had all been explained. "Right. Lao-Chu, you did all the extraditions before Shen Wei was showing up in person, you still remember how?"
"Yes," Lao-Chu said, not looking very happy about it.
Well, tough. "Great, that's your job for the rest of the day. Take anyone else you need."
"You're not coming?"
"No. I've got paperwork to finish."
Lao-Chu shrugged, and went to sort it out. Zhao Yunlan sat himself back in front of his computer, and his phone rang. He didn't recognise the number.
"Hello?" he said.
"Shen Wei," Zhao Yunlan said, sitting forwards. Shen Wei's voice sounded slightly odd. "Are you okay?"
"No," Shen Wei said. "I… don't think so."
"What's the matter?" Zhao Yunlan demanded, already getting to his feet.
"I don't know," Shen Wei said, worryingly. "Can you come?"
"Yes," Zhao Yunlan said. "I'll be right there."
"I'll go to my office," Shen Wei said. His voice was still all wrong.
"I'm on my way," Zhao Yunlan said. Gripping the phone tight enough to hurt his hand. "Ten minutes, okay?"
"Yes," Shen Wei said, and hung up, and Zhao Yunlan ran.
Shen Wei reached the university in the morning at the same time as the incoming flood of students. Usually he preferred to arrive earlier, but he had been waiting for the shops to open. He had a new pair of glasses on his face as he climbed the steps, and with that mask he was able to face the well-wishes of colleagues and students alike who had been horrified to hear about the fire and his time in hospital because of it.
He had no classes in the morning, but plenty of work to catch up with that kept him busy in his office. He went to the cafeteria for lunch, which necessitated more small-talk with colleagues, which was mildly exhausting but also oddly touching. It was surprising how many people had been concerned about him. And still were — he was given a lot of sympathy and offers of help should he need them. He also had to listen to a couple of ghastly anecdotes about people who had suffered from smoke inhalation and seemed fine but then dropped dead shortly afterwards, and it took quite a lot of work to keep reminding himself that he was being told about this from a place of concern.
However, it was definitely a relief to finally flee to his own classroom. He closed the door behind him and breathed deeply in the empty room. This place was his, not even shared with the fearsome reputation of the Black-Cloaked Envoy. The chalkboard and desks and dusty windows wrapped themselves comfortingly around him, Professor Shen, like an entirely different sort of cloak.
He set his books out, and wrote his introductory notes on the board.
It was a lesson he enjoyed teaching, and he was genuinely happy to be back with his students. He finished the lecture quite cheerfully, and fetched himself a cup of tea during the break before the next one.
It started well. But after a while, standing before the board, he started to feel lightheaded, and then outright dizzy. He swallowed hard. He was not going to have another of those attacks of weakness in front of his class.
Except… he apparently was.
He stumbled to his desk and sat down, amid a chorusing of, Professor Shen, are you okay?
"We'll stop here for today," he said, trying to focus on something, anything. Trying to hide how unwell he felt.
He clearly didn't manage it, if the cluster of students around his desk was anything to go by. Their words passed back and forth over his head. You know he was out last week… Yes, he was in hospital… A fire… He's not well… What do we do?
"Professor Shen?" someone asked, directly. "Can we do anything?"
He struggled to think. He needed… help. He needed Zhao Yunlan, who would be there. "Is… Can I use a phone?" he asked, to anyone.
One was pushed into his hand but even squinting at the screen he couldn't make out the numbers properly and there was nothing to help him dial them by feel. He had to say them out in the end, and someone entered them for him. He kept waiting to start feeling less adrift but he didn't.
"Hello?" Zhao Yunlan answered.
Shen Wei gripped the phone tightly. "Zhao Yunlan?"
"Shen Wei," Zhao Yunlan said. "Are you okay?"
"No," Shen Wei said. He put his other hand flat down on the desk, trying to hold himself steady. "I… don't think so."
"What's the matter?" Zhao Yunlan sounded urgent.
"I don't know," Shen Wei said. He just felt wrong, and foggy, and he didn't know how to describe any of it. But what he needed was… "Can you come?"
"Yes," Zhao Yunlan said, instantly, and Shen Wei closed his eyes in sheer relief. "I'll be right there."
"I'll go to my office," Shen Wei said. That would be better. And it wasn't far. He could manage it.
"I'm on my way," Zhao Yunlan said. "Ten minutes, okay?"
"Yes," Shen Wei said, and lowered the phone, looking at it quizzically before the student who had lent it to him did something to end the call.
He had told Zhao Yunlan he would go to his office. He levered himself unsteadily to his feet. "Professor Shen?" someone asked again.
"I'll help him." An older voice. "Go off and give him some space."
The students parted for someone with more authority. Shen Wei squinted at the tall woman. Another professor? He wasn't sure. But he couldn't seem to make out the details of anyone's faces, and he didn't protest when she slung one of his arms over her shoulders. He wasn't sure he could do anything else — his body didn't really seem to be under his control any longer.
The woman walked him out of the classroom and down the corridor. After they turned the first corner they suddenly didn't seem to attract notice any longer, which was a relief. The small part of Shen Wei's brain which was still working on such a level burned in embarrassment about being seen in such a state. "Which way is your office?" she asked, and he did his best to guide them there.
Inside, she helped him sit down on one of the armchairs. He was becoming more alarmed. The previous attacks of weakness and disorientation had passed quickly, but this one wasn't getting better. Instead he felt worse. His head lolled down onto his chest and it took real effort to lift it. "What's your… name?" he asked.
She didn't answer. Instead she was looking around at the shelves. "Where's Ye Zun's mask?" she asked. "Is it here?"
He stared at her. Abruptly chilled. "You —"
"Where is it?" she asked.
He tried to stand. But he could barely move, and only succeeded in half-falling sideways.
She grabbed him by the shoulders and hauled him upright again. "Where is it? Tell me!" Then she froze, and Shen Wei's heart buoyed, because he could recognise Zhao Yunlan's footsteps at the door, a moment before the handle turned.
Zhao Yunlan entered, and looked around with a slight frown.
"Zhao Yunlan —" Shen Wei's voice came out as more of a whisper.
Zhao Yunlan looked past him, through him. He turned, and left the office.
Shen Wei reached after him, his hand falling back almost as soon as he'd managed to lift it. "Zhao Yunlan…"
"Tell me where you hid Ye Zun's mask!" the woman snapped. "It's not here, is it?"
Shen Wei tilted his head towards her. "It's gone," he whispered. "It burned up."
She slapped him across the face. It made his eyes water, but brought him a moment of clarity. Enough that when Zhao Yunlan came through the door again at that moment Shen Wei was able to focus on him properly, could see the deep worry on his face.
He walked all the way into the room this time, even checking behind the desk before absentmindedly perching on a corner of it. "Shen Wei," he muttered. "Where did you go…"
"Zhao Yunlan," Shen Wei tried to call again, hopelessly. He attempted to lift himself out of the chair, to crawl towards Zhao Yunlan if necessary, but the woman put a hand on his shoulder, easily pinning him in place. "Zhao Yunlan, help…"
Zhao Yunlan swept his eyes around the office, through Shen Wei without a pause.
"Do you want to keep him safe?" the woman asked. Confident that she wouldn't be overheard.
"He can keep himself safe," Shen Wei said, furious at the threat, and then frustrated that he couldn't summon the energy to convey his fury.
"Really?" she asked. "From me? You didn't notice me walk to the front of your class and put a drug into your tea — imagine what I can do to him."
"The mask burned," Shen Wei insisted. "In my apartment… there was a fire…"
Still frowning, Zhao Yunlan scribbled a note and dropped it on Shen Wei's desk. Then he left the room again, this time shutting the door behind him.
"You'll tell us sooner or later," the woman said. "Come with me."
She scooped Shen Wei up with an arm over her shoulders again. He was powerless to resist, though he tried. "Where are we going?"
"Dixing," she said, shortly.
"Why?" He tugged at his collar with his free hand, sliding his fingers around his neck. He could see Zhao Yunlan's note on the desk — Call me.
She didn't answer, pulling him forwards instead. He went with her, against his will.
They passed Zhao Yunlan again in the stairwell, speaking quickly and agitatedly into his phone. "— can't find him anywhere, I don't know what —"
Shen Wei tried to reach for him, and then turned his head as best he could, putting all the resistance he could summon into it. Then he was lolling bonelessly again, and being borne away.
Zhao Yunlan had managed to keep a lid on his worry until he reached Shen Wei's office and found that Shen Wei wasn't there. But the door had been unlocked, which was unusual. He checked the nearby bathroom, which was empty, and then traced the path to Shen Wei's classroom. Which was also mostly empty, even though there were still ten minutes before the end of the session.
A pair of girls were sitting on tables, chatting. They paused when they saw him.
"I'm looking for Professor Shen," Zhao Yunlan said. "Do you know where he is?"
"He ended the class early. He wasn't very well," one of the girls said.
"Do you know where he went?" Zhao Yunlan asked.
"The other professor took him out," the same girl told him. "To his office, I think. He called someone to come and get him; Su-ge lent him his phone."
The other girl giggled.
"Which professor?" Zhao Yunlan asked, patiently.
They looked at each other, and shrugged. "I don't know who she is," the first girl said.
"But she's definitely a professor?"
She looked unsure. "Well, she wasn't a student…"
"What did she look like?" Zhao Yunlan asked. "I might know her," he added, since they were beginning to look uncertain at all the questions.
It was the second girl who answered. "About your age?" she suggested, although Zhao Yunlan knew better than to rely on teenagers' estimation of such things. "About as tall as Professor Shen, with very short hair. Kind of old-fashioned clothes."
"They left about ten minutes ago," the first girl offered. "Did you check his office yet?"
"Thank you for your help," Zhao Yunlan told them, and left them chatting again.
He back-tracked and arrived at Shen Wei's office again, with the door still standing open as he'd left it. He'd been entertaining a slight hope that they had just taken different paths and missed each other on the way, but it was still empty. He walked right inside and even checked behind the desk, which was stupid but he couldn't not.
Where else would Shen Wei have gone?
He perched himself on the edge of the desk, staring around. Aside from the unlocked door, there was no sign that anyone had been in at all. "Shen Wei," he muttered. "Where did you go…"
Sitting here was wasting time. Just in case Shen Wei did turn up here, Zhao Yunlan scribbled a note — Call me — and left it prominently on the desk. Then he left, closing the door, fishing his phone from his pocket.
He leaned against the wall in the stairwell and dialled Da Qing. "Shen Wei's missing," he said, as soon as Da Qing picked up.
"What do you mean?" Da Qing asked. "Didn't he just call you?"
"Yes, but I've got to the university and he isn't here. I've searched his office and classroom and apparently he was there a few minutes ago, but now he's not. I can't find him anywhere, I don't know what happened."
"Do you want me to join you?" Da Qing asked.
"Yes. Don't bring anyone else just now, I don't want to draw a lot of attention."
"Okay," Da Qing said, and Zhao Yunlan shoved his phone back into his pocket. He went over the path between the classroom and the office again, and checked all the rooms along the way just in case. And then he arrived back at Shen Wei's office again and opened the door even though clearly nothing had changed —
Shen Wei's jade pendant was lying in the middle of the floor.
Zhao Yunlan blinked at it for a moment. Had he missed — No. He couldn't possibly have not noticed it before. He crouched down and picked it up, letting the leather cord dangle from his fingers. He looked around as if he expected Shen Wei to materialise from the empty air.
But Shen Wei had completely vanished.