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Behavioural Patterns of Nightmare Professors in Their Natural Habitat

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It was a sunny day on the brink of summer when Sun Chen declared with utmost seriousness, “Professor Hua is a demon.”

Professor Hua was a mystery wrapped in red, black, and silver. His beauty was that of deadly things. He was brilliant, quick-witted, and sharp-tongued: his words cut on good days and thoroughly annihilated on bad ones. More than once, he brought students to tears without remorse. He delighted in asking questions at random and always happened to choose that one thing the person unlucky enough to catch his attention didn’t know.

Wang Qing couldn’t care less about Sun Chen’s statement. The lecture was upon them, and there were still a few names and dates she couldn’t remember.

Her end of the year history exam was starting to shape up to be worse than Gaokao.

“Sun Chen-jie, please refrain from speaking nonsense,” said Liang Shu and—yes, she closed her book, which meant a speech was about to be delivered. Time slowed to a crawl whenever Liang Shu decided to give a speech. All of a sudden, Professor Hua’s imminent arrival wasn’t that much of an unwelcome thing.

“Nonsense? And why does esteemed Liang Shu consider my words nonsense?”

“Calling Professor Hua ‘a demon’ not only implies your belief in all things supernatural, but is also a derogatory term and—”

Now here was the thing about Professor Hua: he never engaged in small talk and pleasantries, and never, ever announced himself. If Wang Qing didn’t know better, she would say he appeared out of thin air in the most inopportune moments.

Like, for example, this one.

“If you’re all done yet?”

Their faces aflame, Liang Shu and Sun Chen rushed to the back of the lecture hall in silence. Wang Qing chose a seat halfway between them and Professor Hua. Blending in was her only hope.

Please don’t ask me, please don’t ask me.

“I’m sure everyone will appreciate a brief summary of the previous lecture,” Professor Hua said. His voice always rang clear and loud. “Wang Qing, do the honours.”

Shit, she thought to herself, looked up, and met Professor Hua’s eyes. Was that twinkle a sign of amusement or a reflection of the lamps above? She could never tell with him. Could anyone?

“Any time now, Wang Qing. Do keep in mind that my patience is limited.”

Professor Hua’s taste in fashion was… eccentric, to say the least. Sometimes he gave lectures dressed from head to toe in period clothes and jewellery so exquisitely made they must have cost fortune. Sometimes he looked as though he walked out of a modern fashion show. Between those, he had a whole kaleidoscope of outfits, and every single one of them only added to his charm.

Even though all Wang Qing felt for him was fear, she wasn’t blind. And today, in a tight-fitting shirt opened all the way to his sternum, Professor Hua looked marvellous. Mouth-watering, even.

She fixed her eyes on the wall above his head and forced herself to think only about ancient history.

“Professor Hua?” Liang Shu called.

He didn’t even spare her a glance.

“Professor Hua, should I call for medical assistance?”

That made him look up. “What nonsense are you spouting?”

“Professor seems to be hurt, and I thought… I thought…”

Professor Hua blinked. And again. And then he burst out laughing so loud he clutched his stomach and bent nearly in half.

He had never laughed during their year’s lecture before. Hell, given the opinion students both currently attending and those long graduated had of him, this might be the first time he had ever laughed. It was loud and bright, and so unlike him.

If Wang Qing closed her eyes, she could have mistaken him for one of the students, carefree and barely on the cusp of adulthood.

“I didn’t expect youth these days to be that innocent,” he said after a while, wiping away tears in his left eye.

“Professor?”

“I am not hurt, Liang Shu, neither do I need medical help.”

“But Professor, I don’t…”

A scowl replaced traces of softness the outburst of laughter had left on his face. “Is there a limit to your cluelessness? Wang Qing, summarise the events that led to the rise of the Lang Dynasty.”

Shit. She could go on for hours about the fall of the Lang Dynasty, but its rise? General knowledge of common changes between dynasties could only get her so far.

“Sun-jie,” said Liang Shu, at the back of the lecture hall in what she must have thought a whisper but the dead silence that always fell in Professor Hua’s presence changed into a shout. “Sun-jie, I don’t understand.”

“Shut up!” countered Sun Chen only marginally quieter.

“Sun-jie, what did he mean by that?”

If Wang Qing thought hard and long she could disappear, it would happen, wouldn’t it? She would be free of this lecture, free of the nightmare Professor Hua embodied.

“Sun-jie?”

“Oh my gods, Liang Shu, he had sex with someone!”

Wang Qing plopped down onto her chair as if someone cut the strings holding her upright.

“Well,” came Professor Hua’s frigid drawl, “now that all doubts have been cleared, if someone still doesn’t understand something, I suggest they leave and dedicate some effort into practical research. Apart from that, since your fellow student has apparently given up on summarising the subject, all of you will write an essay on the events leading to Xian Le-Yong An war. At least twenty pages long, due tomorrow. Any questions?”

Silence was his answer. In it, Wang Qing’s hopes of passing this year shrivelled and died.

 


 

“I can’t believe someone’s willing to date Professor Hua,” Sun Chen said hours after the lecture. It was night time already, but the library was full of students. Every now and then someone’s head hit the table. For quite a while now, someone was sobbing between the shelves with no signs of stopping soon.

Wang Qing had run out of ideas on how to make sentences longer since page nine, and she still had five more to write. “I can,” she said, the image of Professor Hua’s exposed chest still fresh in her memory. “Have you seen that man?”

“Almost every day, yes, and I wish I didn’t. And you!” Sun Chen threw a pen at Liang Shu. “I can’t believe you mistook nail scratches for injuries!”

“What else was I supposed to think? How could anyone be willing to-to—you know!”

“Masochists exist,” Wang Qing said. “Maybe someone’s into verbal humiliation and being treated like dirt under his boots?”

Liang Shu swung a book at her. “Not. So. Loud!”

“Hey!”

“Hey!” echoed after her the librarian assistant on duty this miserable evening. “One more word and you’re out!”

Sun Chen, having long given up on writing her essay, sprawled herself across the table. “We’re so dead.”

 


 

They were, indeed, dead.

Professor Hua called each student to the front of the hall to present the essays. So far, no one had made it halfway through. With every person, his dismissals grew more scathing, and the air ever colder and denser. Next to his desk, Liang Shu was reading her essay in a feeble voice broken by occasional intakes of wheezing breaths. She looked to be on the verge of fainting. As with many other things, Professor Hua didn’t care about that.

“I told you so,” Sun Chen hissed behind Wang Qing. “He’s a demon.”

For once, Wang Qing was inclined to agree.

“Wrong,” Professor Hua interrupted Liang Shu in the middle of a sentence. “I don’t even know where to begin correcting you. Go and—” He broke off and put his fingers to his temple, his brow furrowing. It took only a moment before he got to his feet and marched to the windows to lean out of the nearest open one. “Gege?”

“San Lang!” came from somewhere below. “Look what I found!”

“I admit I am more concerned with ‘where’ than ‘what’.”

“Ah.” A laugh, bashful and young. “Are you busy?”

Professor Hua moved away from the window. “Not at all.”

They were on the second floor, and yet someone jumped onto the windowsill without any effort. Professor Hua held out a hand; the stranger took it and let himself be guided inside. He looked like he had taken a mud bath, rolled in concrete, and then tried to dry himself in hay. Professor Hua led him to his chair, kneeled before him, and started wiping mud off his face with the sleeve of his shirt.

Professor Hua, the university’s terror, was on his knees before someone, and he wasn’t scowling. He wasn’t uncouth, or rough, or dismissive, and if Wang Qing didn’t know he was the same person as a moment prior, she would have bet her life someone had replaced him when they weren’t looking.

“San Lang said he wasn’t busy and yet you’re in the middle of a lecture.”

Professor Hua said and smiled. Smiled. “You know I’m never busy for you.”

It was official. Wang Qing had gone mad, or slipped into a nightmare so vivid that there was no waking up from it.

“You promised to respect your students more.”

Professor Hua took the man’s hand and kissed it, covered as it was in mud and grass and other unspeakable substances. Was this his bed partner? Someone more, perhaps? It must have been; Professor Hua’s face was soft as never before, his hands gentle and thorough. Even his words lacked anger and venom and carried a teasing lilt of familiarity and genuine affection.

“What have you found, gege?”

The man waved something long and caked in so much mud that it resembled a fossil. “The Earth Master’s Shovel! Can you imagine? There’s a construction site where Mount Tonglu used to be, so I went to look. San Lang’s luck must have rubbed off on me this morning, because I noticed it as soon as I sneaked in.”

A crumpled ball of paper hit Wang Qing in the cheek. She unfolded it. Inside, in Sun Chen’s messy handwriting, was ‘GEGE???’ and ‘SAN LANG!!!’. A scream without voice, hysteria without tears; and Wang Qing felt them deep in her bones.

She glanced up—Professor Hua tore his ruined sleeve off and wiped the last smudge off his partner’s face—wrote, ‘HE’S GORGEOUS’, and threw it back in Sun Chen’s general direction. It felt like elementary school all over again. A fitting activity to add to this day’s insanity.

Professor Hua’s companion took the outer layer of his clothes off. Whatever he wore underneath didn’t survive unscathed, but it was still better than the slowly hardening fabric soaked through with concrete. It also exposed his throat for everyone to see—and the hickeys that covered it.

It gave Wang Qing a mental image she could have gone without.

“Gege,” Professor Hua said as he stared at his partner with unbridled adoration. But that couldn’t be true, could it? After all, he had no heart. “This useless bunch couldn’t get anything right about Xian Le before the war with Yong An. How about you enlighten them?”

“Me?”

“Yes, you. Who else knows it better than you?”

The man’s smile matched Professor Hua’s in fondness.“En. If San Lang insists.”

What followed was the most rambling and uncoordinated lecture in history. Professor Hua didn’t take his eyes off his partner even once. His expression—that of a man looking at the person who hung up the moon, the stars, and was the sole reason for the world’s existence—never wavered. Wang Qing wasn’t brave enough to take a sneak photo, but she committed to memory this one of a kind smile and softness of eyes she knew she would never see again.

Professor Hua might be a demon of a man without a shred of regard for others, but maybe even demons had one person for whom they lost their claws.