“He, I mean, I am busy right now. You’ll have to wait.”
“But the Regent insists that the Lord Envoy must—”
“The Regent dares to command the Lord Envoy?”
“Of course not. No disrespect was intended.”
The messenger made of smoke vanished and Jiajia let out a sigh of relief as she slumped into Professor Shen’s desk chair. She allowed herself a moment to shut her eyes and take a few deep breaths, then shrugged off the hoodie and mask and reached for the stack of lab reports waiting on the desk.
If she was fast enough, she could have them marked before office hours began. Then it would be time to cover a lecture before she got started on her own assignments.
She’d had plenty of time to handle it all until the Regent’s messenger showed up for the fourth time that morning. The man had a lot of nerve to interrupt (what he thought was) Professor Shen’s work so frequently.
If he ever showed up in person at the university, he had better hope he found Professor Shen waiting behind the desk and not Jiajia. Otherwise he would find himself regretting all the whining, sniveling, and manipulative tactics that reminded her of her grandfather. Jiajia had to put up with her grandfather’s meddling because he was family. The Regent, though, didn’t have that same privilege.
Jiajia might not own a guandao like Professor Shen did, but she was creative, innovative, and pretty sure she could figure out how to make the Regent run away in terror. A few fleeting ideas flashed through her mind, but she ignored them.
Revenge fantasies were reserved for those with the luxury of spare time, something Jiajia hadn’t possessed since she’d become Professor Shen’s teaching assistant.
So she shoved aside her thoughts of making the Regent scream like her six year-old cousin when confronted by a bug, and instead focused on the assignments in front of her.
Jiajia had known that serving as Professor Shen’s TA would be a lot of work.
Which was fine. He was her favorite professor – the one with the most intriguing lectures, who’d never doubted her abilities as a scientist simply because she was a short woman, even suggesting that she continue her education by applying to a grad program when her grandfather was asking her if she’d met any nice young men.
Her friends in her program were jealous. A few harped on about Professor Shen’s good looks (Jiajia was aware, but she’d never thought of him that way – he was too much like an older brother or uncle to her). Most of them, though, were more envious of how he differed from some of the other professors, who dumped pretty much all grading and office hours on their TAs while also expecting them to run personal errands.
But that didn’t mean the position didn’t come with extra responsibilities.
Professor Shen had a campus-wide reputation for being atrocious with technology, which left Jiajia scrambling to manage her own email as well as his. His research was brilliant, but Jiajia helped him get it in a format where it could be presented at conferences.
“I could teach you how to make a presentation,” she’d offered during her first week as his TA.
He’d looked slightly afraid, so unlike his usual calm and confident demeanor, but he’d nodded and she’d tried. Oh, had she tried.
It ended in what she suspected were almost-tears on both their parts.
“Maybe it’s better if you just pass me your notes,” she finally conceded after he’d nearly formatted her laptop’s hard drive by mistake.
“It won’t add too much work for you?” Professor Shen had asked. “Because you should be focused on your coursework, not—”
“It’s fine,” she cut him off, the adrenaline from nearly losing all her files causing her to speak a little more abruptly than she’d meant to.
“Thank you.” His smile looked genuine and, if Jiajia was being honest, a bit relieved.
And so they settled into a routine. She helped him with the copier, with digital forms, and putting illustrations on slides for class. He ensured she had lab access whenever she needed it.
Jiajia was tired, but that was to be expected of a grad student. Right? It was par for the course. Besides, at least she wasn’t having to pick up his dry cleaning like some of the other TAs in her cohort.
It was true that she ended up covering his intro-level courses a little more frequently than some of her peers.
“You’re more than qualified,” he’d assured her, “and the experience will look good on your CV.”
Why he was often having to dash out at a moment’s notice, she hadn’t been sure, but figured it had something to do with Professor Shen’s “good friend,” the man with ripped jeans who, while obnoxious, stared at Professor Shen with such love and warmth that Jiajia decided against chasing him off.
Unless he made Professor Shen sad. In which case, she would… well, she wasn’t sure, but she’d be damned if she’d just let this Chief Zhao, as he was called, break Professor Shen’s heart without consequences.
So Professor Shen had a partner. Good for him! He seemed happier since he started spending more time with Chief Zhao and Jiajia was happy to cover his classes, even more so when she learned that his connection to Chief Zhao was professional as well as personal.
“Professor Shen’s lectures are the best,” Jiajia had told her grandfather. Her knees were shaking but her voice was steady. “Why can’t he be a professor and a special consultant?”
There were times when she didn’t understand her grandfather, but never more so than when he almost pushed Professor Shen to resign. So what if Professor Shen had a side job? He still worked harder and put in more office hours than any of the other professors in the department.
Plenty of people balanced two jobs. Professor Shen could handle it.
Except he might have overextended himself. Just a little. Just a bit. Because it turned out that Professor Shen also had a third job.
Jiajia learned about it one night when she’d stayed late waiting on results from an experiment. The lab wasn’t very comfortable for the other work she needed to complete and Professor Shen’s office had been just down the hall. He’d given her a key and she was catching up on grading for him. She didn’t see any harm in relocating there until it was time to head back to the lab.
It was approaching midnight and she hadn’t expected Professor Shen to find her at his desk (not that he minded, he assured her).
In retrospect, the first thing she probably should have noticed was the fact that he appeared quite literally out of thin air. But she’d been far more distracted by what he was wearing.
“I… I didn’t realize you’d still be working,” he said, as if he was the one who was intruding in his own office.
“It’s all right, Professor Shen,” she told him without missing a beat. “Lots of people are into cosplay these days.”
There had been a convention in town and it explained not only why he missed his last class of the day but also his black robes, mask, and blade.
Professor Shen blinked at her a few times then sighed. “I’ll explain. But later. Right now I’m urgently needed elsewhere.”
Then he stepped behind the desk and rummaged through a drawer, retrieving something Jiajia couldn’t see before again vanishing.
She knew she should be weirded out by it, but there was so much grading, plus her own coursework, plus the experiment that was almost done, so there really wasn’t any time to worry about it. If Professor Shen had a magical way of getting around, then she was happy for him. Jiajia never had enough time and she was just a grad student. A professor with two jobs needed all the timesaving help he could get.
He'd seemed a bit nervous the next morning when she arrived with coffee.
“I know you prefer tea, but I think we both had a late night,” she explained as she placed the cup on his desk. “Also, here are the marked reports for your afternoon class. They’re still a mess, but they’re getting better.”
That seemed to put him at ease, as it led to an invitation to lunch where he explained, sometimes in terms that Jiajia didn’t quite understand, about his other other job, one he’d had for quite a long time.
“And Dixing is your home? Does Chief Zhao know? Do you miss it? Is your family there? Will you ever move back?”
Professor Shen had told her he’d answer any questions she had. The surprised expression on his face indicated he’d expected something else, but Jiajia started with what was most important. She wanted Professor Shen to be happy. She also wanted him to supervise her research until she finished her degree.
“You’re not curious about dark energy?” he asked after a brief pause. “Or my role as the Envoy?”
Under other circumstances, she would have been, but Jiajia had heard horror stories from some of the other TAs. Professor Shen could shoot fully cooked meals from his eyes and be worshipped as an emperor for all Jiajia cared, but if she was going to be assigned to another professor, she needed to know.
“It’s just,” he continued, “that those topics are a little less complicated.”
And like that, Jiajia understood. Family could be tricky.
“Tell me again about the artifact you had to retrieve last night. You said it was a Hallow?”
Jiajia didn’t entirely understand everything Professor Shen said – he himself admitted to leaving out some information better kept secret – but when they finally left the remote corner of the dining hall, he was far more relaxed than she’d found him that morning and that was a win as far as Jiajia was concerned.
The thing about discovering Professor Shen’s secret was that it meant he was somewhat more open with her about the reasons for his periodic absences from class, which were becoming more frequent.
There were the times he’d needed to escort Chief Zhao to assorted doctor appointments. Apparently, he’d gotten injured at work and needed to see specialists. Jiajia didn’t pry, but she asked Professor Shen to send her well-wishes and assured him she had his office hours taken care of.
As soon as Chief Zhao had recovered (a development that took what looked like ten thousand years of worry off Professor Shen’s face), things got complicated with Professor Shen’s third job. (Or was it his first one? Jiajia wasn’t quite sure of how to refer to it because she actively tried to avoid thinking about it, lest she let it slip just what had been keeping Professor Shen away.)
“I'm needed in Dixing,” he explained when he'd asked her to cover yet another class on short notice. “If it wasn’t an emergency…”
“Go. It's fine. Honestly, I think the 10 a.m. is more frightened of me than you.”
That much was true. Professor Shen might be the encourager but Jiajia was rapidly becoming the enforcer.
She wanted to ask what was wrong - though Professor Shen hadn't specifically said there was a problem, it was pretty clear that something wasn't right - but he gave her a quick nod, then vanished in a portal.
Anyway, there wasn't time for worrying about Dixing politics. Jiajia had more important matters to deal with. Like shielding Professor Shen from her grandfather.
“It's a valuable opportunity,” she told him. “None of the other TAs get this much experience. It's probably because he knows I’m your granddaughter.”
“It's because he knows you're capable and that you deserve to teach more frequently,” her grandfather countered, family pride distracting him from his theories of a slacking professor. “Professor Shen is a smart man. Of course he sees your potential. And it's good that he's on a research trip. It will help build the university's reputation.”
Jiajia kept her triumphant smile hidden. She hadn't made it this far without learning how to play her grandfather. As for the “research trip,” it hadn't been a lie. Not really. Professor Shen needed to find out what was going on in Dixing. As far as Jiajia was concerned, that qualified as research.
Her workload only intensified when he got back.
Whatever had happened, it seemed to have added some friction between Professor Shen and Chief Zhao. Jiajia didn’t mean to overhear their argument, but the door to Professor Shen’s office was slightly ajar, which was a sign that something was distracting him as he usually closed it when Chief Zhao arrived. (What they got up to alone in there, Jiajia didn’t know and didn’t want to find out, but she made sure to wipe down the desk when it was her turn to use it – just to practice good workplace hygiene.)
Jiajia positioned herself outside, standing sentry to keep potential eavesdroppers away.
Despite her best efforts to not listen, she couldn’t help but hear bits and pieces of Chief Zhao’s angry words.
“Never take care of yourself… you’re too reckless… think you’re immortal… what am I supposed to do if something happens to you?”
Chief Zhao had a point – even before Jiajia had learned so many of Professor Shen’s secrets, she’d thought he ran himself a bit too hard – but when Professor Shen answered him, his voice was so anguished that she risked being found out, reaching for the knob to pull the door shut. If she caught a glimpse of Chief Zhao wrapping an arm around Professor Shen while leaning in for what looked like a kiss, well, even more reason to shut the damn door.
“Thank you,” Professor Shen told her later that afternoon. “Chief Zhao and I—”
“Need a quiet evening in,” Jiajia suggested. “All you have left is first year advising. I can handle that.”
“Tomorrow I’ll see what I can do about arranging independent study credit for all the extra work you’ve taken on,” Professor Shen told her right before he portalled out of the office, leaving Jiajia more committed than ever to finding a way to lighten his load.
A person could only handle so much stress (something Jiajia was becoming very aware of). Professor Shen could manage a lot – conducting his classes and research, consulting for the confidential department, managing whatever it was he did in Dixing, and keeping things happy (happier?) at home with Chief Zhao.
Yes, Jiajia stepped in when he had to leave unexpectedly, but most days Professor Shen was still covering all of his considerable responsibilities on his own.
It wouldn’t take much more – a careless word from her grandfather, a B student crying for an A, that awful Dixing Regent cringing with feigned respect – to push Professor Shen too far. If something had to give, Jiajia was pretty sure it would be his job at the university, which would leave another professor directing her research. And that wasn’t acceptable.
Something had to be done. If Professor Shen couldn’t be two places at once (he couldn’t – Jiajia had asked him), then why couldn’t there be two Professor Shens?
Jiajia was already handling a good number of his lectures and labs, fielding office hour questions, and all of his online correspondence. Why not add a few more responsibilities into the mix? It wasn’t like she needed to sleep.
(She desperately needed to sleep. So badly that advertisements for mattresses and pillows sometimes made her emotional, not that she’d ever tell anyone.)
Of course, she couldn’t take over all of Professor Shen’s university obligations. No matter how sharply she dressed, the two of them were built very differently. Sleeve garters couldn’t compensate for the height discrepancy. (And a rather large assortment of other very noticeable physical differences.)
Ok. So she couldn’t be Professor Shen. But the Envoy… the Envoy wore a mask and cowl and robes. If she was sitting and if she was dealing with one of the smoke messages he often received, she could probably pull it off. Right?
There was only one way to find out.
Asking Professor Shen to borrow his robes was out of the question – it wasn’t like they would fit anyway. But she already owned a black hoodie and she regularly wore black jeans. A quick trip to the drama building left her with a mask swiped from a costume closet that, while not a perfect match, was close enough considering the time and budget she was working with (i.e., nonexistent).
Would it convince the Regent’s smoky messenger?
The chance for Jiajia to find out came sooner than she’d hoped.
Only two days after she’d assembled her Envoy outfit, stowing it in the desk drawer that held Professor Shen’s university issued laptop (the one place he’d never look), the familiar smoke began swirling in through the blinds.
She might have smashed her thumb in the drawer, but she managed to get the hoodie and the mask in place just before the smoke swirled into the form of the messenger.
“Lord Envoy,” the messenger’s voice rang out, “the Regent… did you get shorter?”
“I’m sitting. It’s been a long day. Now stop hesitating and deliver the Regent’s message at once.”
Jiajia’s voice didn’t match Professor Shen’s but she’d spent so much time wrangling his afternoon class into shape that she could manage stern authority. It seemed to work, as the messenger went on at length about rebellious young people, strange happenings at something called the Heaven Pillar, and an incident at a bar that Jiajia was almost certain involved Chief Zhao. Not that she was going to mention it.
“That concludes the Regent’s report, Lord Envoy. What are your instructions?”
She stared at the messenger, grateful for the mask hiding the terror she felt flooding through her body. The messenger had spoken words to her, ones that she knew and recognized. She simply didn’t know what all of them meant when they were arranged in that order.
This whole thing was a bad idea. A horrible one. Jiajia could handle office hours, not internal governance for a secret realm she’d never visited. Except… there was something about the messenger’s question that reminded her of the student she’d sorted earlier that morning, the one who’d tried to get the answers out of her by feigning ignorance.
“What solutions has the Regent tried thus far?”
“He… he didn’t say.” The smoke messenger looked sheepish and Jiajia almost felt bad for it. (Almost. But not really.)
“Then I will send my instructions after I’ve received his report. In writing,” she added in the same tone she used with the afternoon class.
“Of course, Lord Envoy.”
Then the messenger vanished, leaving Jiajia slightly terrified as she wondered just what the hell she’d gotten herself into.
“Does Dixing have a university?”
It was a rare afternoon where she and Professor Shen were in the lab together – he’d insisted on stealing time away from all his other obligations to actually meet with her about her research.
“It does not.”
Once upon a time, when Jiajia had simply been a student and not working her way toward becoming Professor Shen’s double, she might not have pressed on after he used that tone. But taking on so many of his responsibilities had left her a little less intimidated by him and also too tired to have a proper filter.
“So you could only attend school there. You had to come to Haixing for your degrees.”
“Actually, Dixing doesn’t have a school.” There was a mixture of sadness and embarrassment in Professor Shen’s tone. “I’ve suggested it, but the government hasn’t built one.”
“Well they should,” Jiajia said, filing the detail away for further contemplation. That earned her a smile as Professor Shen tried to steer the conversation back to her research.
The following morning the Regent’s written report arrived, the paper floating into Professor Shen’s office and depositing itself on the desk. Jiajia pulled on her hoodie and mask, just in case, then read over it, reaching for her favorite grading pen on impulse.
“You will take this,” she said to the smoke messenger who arrived a few minutes after the paper, “back to the Regent. Tell him my directives should be followed exactly. Or there will be consequences.”
Was it wrong that she felt a surge of satisfaction when the messenger flinched? Maybe. Honestly, the Regent deserved her stern tone more than the wispy little smoke man in front of her, but she didn’t have time to worry about it. A student was knocking on the door and she needed to get out of the damn mask.
Jiajia had hoped that her instructions to the Regent would lighten her load, and it was true that Professor Shen was pleased about some of the changes.
“Not only has the Regent agreed to a school,” he told her two days later, “but there are also plans to start some recreation activities for all ages. Apparently the Regent now believes that the people of Dixing need options other than the bar.”
“That’s great!” Jiajia wanted to say more but she was afraid she might let slip what she’d done.
“I’m not sure what prompted the change,” Professor Shen continued. “He always fought me on the school before, but last night he was the one to approach me. His tone was also more deferential.”
After everything she’d done over the past few weeks, Jiajia felt entitled to silently gloat.
“Things are improving but I’m afraid I’ll still need you to fill in for me this afternoon. I’m having a bit of family trouble.”
“With Chief Zhao?” Jiajia blurted it out before she could catch herself. She wasn’t sure how she could impersonate Professor Shen to fix a marital problem and she didn’t really want to try. (Were they married? If not, they should be.)
“Ah, no. Things are… good with Chief Zhao.” It was endearing how he glanced down at the floor with a tiny smile on his face. “It’s my brother.”
The smile vanished and he reached for the folders he’d stacked on the desk, pushing one toward her before gathering the others in his arms.
“I hope things are better soon,” Jiajia offered, unsure of what else to say.
“As do I. Thank you.”
And then he vanished out the door, leaving Jiajia to review the lesson plan he’d left for her.
News of plans for the Dixing school must have spread quickly and been received well, because the Regent’s messenger arrived more frequently, sometimes multiple times a day, with assorted questions about policies to implement and decisions to make.
Jiajia was pretty sure that, much like her friend who’d had a professor steal her research, the Regent was taking Jiajia’s ideas and presenting them to the people of Dixing as his own. But if it kept the Regent managed and off Professor Shen’s back, then Jiajia was willing to answer most of them.
It was annoying constantly having to don the hoodie and mask, but Jiajia had already had two courses knocked off her plan of study thanks to the independent study credit Professor Shen had arranged for her and besides, she genuinely liked Professor Shen as a person. If he could handle the immense burden life had placed on his shoulders, the least Jiajia could do was change clothes a few extra times each day.
Well, that and deal with the Dixing monsters that appeared in the halls outside his office.
At least, she was pretty sure they were from Dixing. A good scientist never assumed but then scientists usually didn’t have to fight… actually, Jiajia had no idea what they were.
All she really knew was that she’d been in the middle of dictating a very stern message to the Regent via the smoke messenger when she’d heard screams. Maybe it was because taking on extra responsibility came naturally to her now or maybe it was poor judgment from an ever-growing sleep deficit, but regardless of the reason, Jiajia did not hide under Professor Shen’s desk (which was what a rational and well-rested person would have done).
Instead, she bolted out the door, still wearing her improvised Envoy getup, to face down a creature that would have resembled a person had it not been for the green skin and giant claws and lumpy body.
Jiajia didn’t bother screaming – she just reached for the nearest object that might possibly function as a weapon.
Remembering the training she’d been forced to go through as part of her TA orientation, she pulled the fire extinguisher’s pin, pointed it at the monster, and squeezed the handle.
The creature collapsed to the floor, gagging and coughing in the cloud Jiajia kept spraying until she heard the rush of footsteps behind her, followed by a very familiar voice.
Jiajia pulled the mask off, stuffing it in her hoodie’s pocket just before Professor Shen and Chief Zhao rushed past her.
“It’s dead,” Professor Shen said.
“Did you fight it alone?” Chief Zhao asked, his eyes running from the creature to the fire extinguisher resting at Jiajia’s feet. “Maybe I should hire you, too. You took it down without even getting its stinky blood everywhere, unlike some people.”
Professor Shen gave Chief Zhao an exasperated glare and Jiajia was pretty sure they were about to start bickering in that way that would probably lead to them making out near a dead monster.
“If you need to take it… somewhere,” Jiajia interrupted, “I’ll handle campus security.”
“Thank you.” Professor Shen gave her a nod, then opened a portal, taking Chief Zhao and the creature with him.
Would security believe it was an experiment gone wrong? As it turned out, they would, provided that Jiajia used her best Envoy voice while she spun the lie to them.
Things calmed down for the next week. Or maybe Jiajia had become so used to her new workload that things felt calm.
She’d hoped Professor Shen would tell her exactly what it was she’d fought, but she never got the chance to ask because she’d only seen him for five minutes and he’d looked pretty ragged at the time, with pale lips and dark circles under his eyes.
“Maybe you need sleep,” Jiajia suggested. She had no idea if that was really what he needed, but it was definitely what she needed, and honestly, couldn’t everyone use a little more sleep?
“Perhaps.” The smile looked forced. “I may not be around for a few days. My brother… Anyway, I’ve signed some forms you may need if I don’t… if I’m delayed.”
Jiajia knew Professor Shen well enough to hear what he wasn’t saying and she didn’t like it one bit.
“You have to come back,” she told him. “You have to sign off on my thesis.”
His eyes looked anguished and he said nothing, just portalled out of his office leaving her wondering if she’d ever see him again.
She wanted to scream and cry and wail, but there was no time because office hours were starting.
And so Jiajia carried on.
She covered Professor Shen’s classes, took over his advising appointments, and even showed up to a committee meeting armed with newfound confidence that came from wrangling the Regent. A few professors raised their eyebrows at her until she recited the previous meeting’s agenda back to them, followed by some suggestions that earned her a few nods of respect by the time the meeting was over.
The Regent still called regularly. The fact that the smoke messenger expected to find Professor Shen in his office instead of in Dixing was disconcerting. It meant they hadn’t seen him and that left Jiajia wondering if he was in trouble.
But it was out of her hands. For now, she had to figure out what to tell the Regent in response to his last question about continued trouble at the Heaven Pillar.
“Only use equipment for its intended purpose,” she told the messenger, falling back on one of the lab safety rules when her silence had stretched on for too long. It was substantive enough to get the messenger to leave, yet cryptic enough to keep the Regent occupied until she could figure out an actual solution, something that would have to wait until Jiajia had covered Professor Shen’s afternoon class.
She didn’t realize she was still wearing the hoodie and the mask until she walked into the lab. Which was fine. After all, none of the students knew Professor Shen as anyone but their favorite teacher. She could laugh it off as a prank or the toll a grad program took on one's mental stability or…
It occurred to Jiajia that no one, not one single person, was looking at her. Even the front row students, the ones who understood she held more power over their final grades than Professor Shen, weren't looking.
Not that Jiajia could blame them. Generally, paying attention to one's TA was important, but maybe not so much when a fellow student was being attacked.
It was hard to get a good look, as the man with the long gray hair had his back to her, but Jiajia was almost certain he was trying to inhale a student.
(An annoying student. One who asked random questions to try to trip her up and whose lab reports bordered on incomprehensible thanks to the very obvious lack of proofreading. Not that those transgressions warranted literally being eaten alive.)
Later on, when Jiajia had time to think and reflect on what happened, she was pretty sure that extreme stress combined with sleep deprivation played a major part in what happened next.
A person could only handle so much and everyone had their breaking point - watching some white-clad tall person devouring one of her students was Jiajia's.
She didn't even think, she just grabbed the broom housekeeping had left propped by the door.
“No eating in the lab!” Jiajia bellowed as she smacked the man square in the back with the broom bristles.
It had the desired effect of distracting him from her student, who bolted for the door as soon as he could get free from the dark energy that had been dissolving him. (Jiajia wanted to be proud of herself for recognizing dark energy, but it wasn't like there were that many other plausible explanations.)
“Get out,” she hissed at the students as the figure turned to face her. “Get out or you're all automatically failing the final.”
That seemed to jar everyone from the terror that had frozen them in place, as the students fled the lab, leaving Jiajia staring down a man who possessed Professor Shen’s face, but was very clearly not Professor Shen.
They looked at each other, Jiajia caught off guard by the face that was both familiar and foreign, while the stranger eyed her quizzically.
“Gege?” the man finally asked.
Jiajia knew she probably sounded unhinged, but the situation was too absurd not to laugh.
“No,” Jiajia said, tightening her grip on the broom handle. “Not gege. Professor Shen is out on personal leave. You'll have to deal with me.”
Then she swung her broom, thrashing his kneecaps as hard as she could. It was ridiculous - Professor Shen’s brother could eat people - but after the semester she'd endured, Jiajia would be damned if she was going down without a fight.
The voice behind her got the man's attention, but Jiajia didn’t stop. She'd put up with her grandfather, with the Regent, with too many difficult students. Half her meals had come from vending machines, and she couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a full night’s sleep.
Jiajia had never considered herself prone to violence, but wielding the broom against Professor Shen’s brother felt satisfyingly therapeutic. Maybe she should have just gone to Dixing and beat the hell out of the Regent ages ago.
And maybe she'd accidentally said that last part out loud, because the man in white snorted as a hand caught her wrist in a firm, yet kind grip.
“That's enough.” Professor Shen sounded like he was trying not to laugh. “I'm sure Ye Zun was about to apologize.”
“I was not. I mean, I'm sorry.”
Jiajia couldn't see Professor Shen’s face from where he stood behind her, but she was almost certain she knew the look he was giving his brother, the one he reserved for plagiarizers.
“Now if you'll excuse us,” Professor Shen said, “we need to finish a conversation we were having. I may be out of the office for the remainder of the week.”
“I’d already planned for it,” Jiajia told him.
“Thank you.” He let go of her wrist and stepped forward to take his brother's instead. Then he opened a portal and dragged Ye Zun through behind him.
The rest of the week passed in a blur.
In spite of having saved a student from a horrific death, the work continued on as it always did. It helped that the students were better behaved and that the Regent stopped asking for advice, but Jiajia still had plenty to do regardless.
The smoke messenger made one final appearance, bowing low before her right as she was about to lock up the office for the weekend.
“The Regent of Dixing apologizes for wasting so much of your valuable time with his incessant inquiries. He also sends his eternal gratitude for your wise counsel. Rest assured, the people of Dixing will know that you were the one behind the recent reforms.”
She could never tell her grandfather - it would lead to too many uncomfortable questions where Professor Shen was concerned - but it would still give her something to think about the next time her grandfather delivered his “you need to find a husband” speech.
Jiajia meant to spend her weekend catching up on grading and working on her own assignments. Instead, she passed out in her bed, only waking up long enough to eat a quick meal before going back to sleep.
She was behind on her work when she walked into Professor Shen’s office at the start of the following week, but at least she was well rested.
“Good morning,” Professor Shen smiled at her as she stepped through the door.
“And all of my other business is taken care of,” he assured her. “Have a seat so we can catch up.”
She did her best to fill him in on students, committee updates, and the bits of departmental gossip he’d missed out on. Professor Shen listened patiently, but it soon became clear there were other things he wanted to discuss, some of which left Jiajia with a sense of unease.
“You’ve taken on a considerable amount of my responsibilities lately,” he said. “Ones that were far beyond the scope of your assistantship. I learned the full extent of all you’d done when I last spoke with the Regent.”
Jiajia held her breath, wondering just how much trouble she would be in for impersonating the Envoy.
“While I’m very grateful,” Professor Shen continued. “I should never have put you in a position where you felt you had to do that.”
“You didn’t,” Jiajia cut in.
“I did. I knew you were responsible and dedicated. I should have guessed that you would help however you could.”
“You have too much to do.”
“That was true, but not any longer, thanks in large part to your efforts. Your directives to the Regent helped make a tense and potentially catastrophic situation easier to manage. As a result, I could focus on containing my brother without having to also plan against the Regent’s scheming. He’s quite frightened of you, by the way.”
“The Regent or your brother?”
Jiajia felt a surge of pride as she listened to Professor Shen continue on, telling her some things she didn’t entirely understand about Hallows and portals and Dixing no longer being isolated or in the dark. Other parts, though, made far more sense, as he explained just how dangerous the situation had been, how close to things falling apart they’d come, and how many credits of independent study her efforts had earned her.
“Now we need to talk about what this means for your future. After applying those credits, all that remains is for you to finish up your thesis,” he told her. “And that brings me to my final point. Dixing’s new school is in need of staff, specifically someone who can teach, but also administer it. I realize it’s not exactly what you were training for, but if that’s something you’d be interested in—”
“Yes.” Jiajia knew she probably should think about it more, but opportunities like that didn’t come along every day and besides, after learning so much about Dixing, it would be interesting to actually visit.
Professor Shen gave her a genuine smile (not the fake one he used around her grandfather.) “Thank you. There’s no one else I would trust more than you to handle the opening. But now we should both head to class.”
As she walked toward the door, Jiajia thought of one last question.
“Professor Shen, I don’t mean to pry, but your brother… is he staying with you and Chief Zhao?”
“He is. I thought that might be for the best while he… rehabilitates.”
“And that’s working out okay?” Her question was out of bounds for a TA talking to a professor, but then most TAs didn’t have to stop their professor’s relatives from eating the students.
“Things are slowly improving,” Professor Shen said. “Ye Zun is somewhat jealous of Chief Zhao and they do occasionally argue, but it’s better than I’d expected.”
Considering what Jiajia had seen of Ye Zun, Professor Shen’s expectations had to have been low.
“If there’s ever trouble… if you need help or you and Chief Zhao just need a night out or even a weekend away…”
“You’ll be the first person I’ll call. We have a broom, so you won’t need to bring one.” He was teasing her, but there was no malice behind it and the fact that he hadn’t mentioned the mask was a kindness.
Her phone beeped, the alarm pulling her from her embarrassment.
“You should go,” Professor Shen told her. “We can meet later to review your research.”
Then Jiajia hurried out of his office and into the crowded hallway. If the students parted to let her through with murmured whispers about not provoking her, well, that was simply one of the perks of being Professor Shen’s TA.