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She doesn’t think much of it at first.

Li Qian stops in front of the door to professor Shen’s office. She raises her hand to knock, but the blinds in front of the windows aren’t quite closed all the way and she pauses.

A girl she recognizes as Lin Meixiang, a second year student, is sitting in one of the chairs in the professor’s office. Her hands are clasped together, uncertain. There’s a tension in her posture, in the way there always seems to be whenever Li Qian sees her anywhere. Professor Shen has pulled up another chair to sit opposite her, leaning forward just a bit, hands resting on his knees.

Li Qian can’t hear what they’re talking about through the glass and the closed door – and it’s honestly none of her business anyway – but in that split second before she looks away again she sees the seemingly perpetual frown creasing xiao-Lin’s brow fade a bit, her lips shaping around a sentence that could be something like “yes please, I’d like that.”

Li Qian turns away, waits by the door, her eyes fixed on the wall on the opposite side of the hallway, until the door handle moves.

The door swings open and xiao-Lin steps outside, casts her a glance, happier than Li Qian has probably ever seen her before, calmer.

She smiles at the younger girl, waves a bit, just a little flutter of her fingers, and xiao-Lin smiles back.

Li Qian turns and steps into professor Shen’s office to ask him the question she came to ask, and she doesn’t think much about that interaction until a week later, when she sees xiao-Lin again in the library.

It’s late in the afternoon, bordering on evening. It’s the Friday before the midterm break. The library is all but empty, most students having already gone home to visit their families, so xiao-Lin has an entire section of it to herself. Li Qian is only there to quickly get a few books to take with her for the break, so she can do all her research from home and spend more time with her grandma.

She stands there, her fingers hovering over the spines of the books, and she watches from behind the cover of the bookcase as professor Shen steps into the library and spots xiao-Lin as well. She watches as the professor’s face lights up in pleasant surprise, as he rummages around in his briefcase while he approaches. She watches as the professor walks up to xiao-Lin sitting at the empty table in the nearly empty library, as he bends down to whisper something to her, as he slips a little flyer into her hands with an encouraging smile.

The whole exchange lasts barely twenty seconds, and then xiao-Lin thanks the professor profusely and he smiles and moves on to whatever it is he actually came to the library to do, but Li Qian watches xiao-Lin from where she’s standing, watches her read the little flyer, watches the tentative smile on the girl’s face bloom into a fuller one.

Once again Li Qian didn’t hear anything professor Shen said to Lin Meixiang – and it’s still none of her business – but she doesn’t need more than that split-second look as the flyer changed hands to recognize the logo printed in the top right corner.

Li Qian would recognize the promotional flyer of DCU’s LGBTQ Student Group anywhere.

She’s the one who designed it after all.

Three weeks later, after the midterm break and midterm exams, Li Qian goes out for drinks with a bunch of people from the Student Group, and xiao-Lin is there. Uncertain at first, a little bit tense, but Li Qian smiles at her as she did that time in the hallway, and slowly that uncertainty is washed away in the face of welcoming warmth.

*

The first time Li Qian kisses another girl, it’s not some sort of giant revelation.

It happens on a Friday night in a bar a month into her first year at DCU, two weeks after she broke up with her high school boyfriend.

A pretty girl comes up to her, sees something in her that she herself is still in the process of recognizing. They have a few drinks and the girl flirts with her in a way that’s more effective than anything her ex ever did, and then they kiss.

It’s not some sort of giant revelation. It’s not even a really good kiss if she’s honest.

It’s not that special, not the way it should be, the way she kind of maybe hoped it would be, but it’s honest.

It’s honest, and that makes it good anyway.

Two months later she sees a flyer, not a particularly well-designed one. She sends an email.

I would like to become a member, she writes, and also: do you have a PR committee?

She never sees that girl again after that one night, that too is honest, but she meets others, and they are more so.

There is freedom in honesty, Li Qian thinks.

*

Professor Shen is observant. Normally that is.

This though? Flies right past him.

That or he’s actively ignoring it. Li Qian hasn’t quite decided what the most likely option is yet.

Li Qian watches from across the room as one of the professors from the History department – Meng-something? – hopelessly tries to get professor Shen’s attention.

She’s not even a bad flirt, Li Qian thinks – and thinking that about a professor makes her want to gag a little bit – but professor Meng might as well be talking to a wall for all the good it’s doing her.

Professor Shen’s smile is polite, but he’s doing absolutely nothing to suggest he’s taking any of her hints. He’s also holding a glass of champagne that, as far as Li Qian has been able to tell, he hasn’t actually taken a sip from yet in the hour he's been here.

They’re at the university-wide end-of-year party. Both students and teachers are invited. The latter perhaps expected. Li Qian knows that professor Shen would probably not be here otherwise.

And that’s how he’s ended up in his current predicament.

It’s – curse her fate – not the first time in the past year that Li Qian has had to witness someone trying to futilely flirt with her professor, and professor Meng is – curse the thought – not even unattractive. Much like the two other times Li Qian has seen this scenario play out in her measly one year at DCU though, professor Shen doesn’t seem to return the poor woman’s interest in him.

So Li Qian watches in horror, her own almost empty champagne glass also forgotten in her hand, as professor Meng leans in a bit and – making the worst mistake she could possibly make – puts a hand on professor Shen’s arm.

Professor Shen in turn goes completely rigid. He freezes up, eyes going a bit wide and tension in his jaw, looking for all the world like a deer caught in the headlights. He twitches, as if he wants to slap her hand away but doesn’t want to be impolite, and Li Qian wonders if he truly did not see it coming this time or if he was just too caught up in hoping that it wouldn’t.

She takes pity on him, and is about to walk over, to try and rescue her professor from death-by-sheer-awkwardness, but Professor Zhou saves her the trouble.

“Shen Wei, my boy,” he calls out as he approaches, “how have you been?”

The man casts an apologetic smile at professor Meng – and for a moment Li Qian thinks there is a hint of pity in that smile – and he pulls professor Shen along.

“I missed that conference you presented at last week,” he says, still loud enough that Li Qian can hear it from where she’s standing, “You must tell me all about it!”

Li Qian watches as a look passes between them, and it lasts only a second or two but it makes her pause.

It’s gratitude on professor Shen’s side, but also something else. There’s some sort of quiet understanding there.

Professor Zhou squeezes his protégé’s shoulder, smiles at him, and professor Shen smiles back and launches into a summary of the most interesting presentations from the conference.

The moment passes.

Li Qian turns away, downs the last of her champagne in one gulp, that shared look between her professors still zooming around her brain as she swallows. It’s familiar somehow.

From the corner of her eye she sees professor Meng still standing alone in the spot her colleagues left her in. She stares at their retreating backs, frowning, and that look is familiar too.

It’s not all that different from how Li Qian’s boyfriend looked at her the night she broke up with him, when she told him she could never like him in quite the same way he likes her. 

She takes another glass of champagne from a passing tray. Another student, another young woman, makes eye-contact with her. The night is still young.

*

Chief Zhao puts a hand on professor Shen’s back as they bend down to look at the screen of one of her computers, at the data she’s showing them.

Li Qian’s voice doesn’t even waver mid-explanation.

Professor Shen turns and nods at her, walks over to the white-board by the wall, starts writing on it with a marker, and Li Qian tries not to be distracted by the way chief Zhao sticks to his side like glue.

By the way her old professor lets him.

Professor Shen scribbles calculations on the white-board, spots his own error in the exact same moment Li Qian does, pauses, looking for an eraser that doesn’t exist – or probably used to but Li Qian hasn’t seen it in ages – and then he wipes at the board with his fingers instead.

The professor pulls his hand away again, frowns at the ink stains on his fingers in distaste before turning to go back to his calculations, but before he can do so chief Zhao grabs his wrist.

Professor Shen pauses, blinks at chief Zhao in slight confusion, watches as the other man turns his hand palm up, taking a hold of his fingers and rubbing them with his own in a futile attempt to get rid of the offending ink stains.

Li Qian watches as her former professor blinks, lips slightly parted, and then swallows, his eyes wide, the tips of his ears turning a bright red.

Chief Zhao looks at him, licks his lips, the corners of his mouth pulling up in a smile that contains a silent promise.

Li Qian looks away. Her own cheeks burn.

She would clear her throat, if not for the fact that she can all but feel the radiance of her old professor’s answering smile.

Her data can wait a few seconds longer.

*

Grandma is the first person Li Qian ever tells.

The first person who isn’t a stranger at least. The first she doesn’t meet in a bar to never see again in her life. Not that she really told any of those people. She just kissed them.

Grandma is the first she ever tells with words.

Li Qian sits her down on the couch, pours her a cup of tea, and with a trembling voice she asks if grandma knows what it means to be a lesbian.

Grandma looks at her, in that discerning way only she can, and to Li Qian’s surprise she nods.

“I had a very dear friend a long time ago…” she starts, and Li Qian holds her hand and listens breathlessly as the story unfolds.

Afterwards she cries, buries her face in grandma’s shoulder, tears soaking into the knitted wool of her jumper, and grandma holds her until she is ready to face the world again.

*

Li Qian is there the day Xie Liang first comes to class with his hair cut short.

She’s read his coming out text in their year’s group chat that same morning.

She’s there when Xie Liang walks into the lecture room and for an awkward second or two everyone falls silent, until Lei Wenting stands up to wave him over with exaggerated gestures and a huge smile on her face.

Xie Liang keeps his head high, ignores the eyes on him, the soft murmurs that pick back up, some no doubt about him.

Li Qian catches his eye when he passes her desk, her own smile almost as wide as Wenting’s, and he smiles back at her, some of his nervousness seeming to dissipate.

It returns in full force when professor Shen walks in.

The professor is later than usual, in a bit of a rush to take out his notes and get his class underway, and Xie Liang seems to pick up on that as well.

Li Qian watches him hesitate, looking from professor Shen to the little pre-written note in his hands and back to professor Shen.

Li Qian watches as Lei Wenting pats his shoulder, gives him a little encouraging push, and she cannot hear what the girl is saying to her friend, but it seems to bolster his resolve.

Li Qian watches as Xie Liang walks up to the professor’s desk at the front of the room.

“Professor?” he murmurs, and professor Shen turns away from the blackboard he’s scribbling on to look at him, papers with lecture notes in one hand and piece of chalk in the other.

“Yes?” he asks, his voice as soft and welcoming as always.

He’s smoother than the rest of the class, not a second of hesitation in his response.

Not a second of hesitation as he takes the little note Xie Liang offers him, reads it attentively, quietly nods to himself.

Not a second of hesitation as he looks up at Xie Liang again, hands the note back to him with a smile on his face, and says:

“That’s a nice haircut, young man. It suits you.”

Professor Shen doesn’t make it into a big deal, which it isn’t. He doesn’t say anything else either. He doesn’t need to. The rest of it shows well enough on his face.

I’m proud of you.

Li Qian watches as Xie Liang returns to his seat with a smile on his face that’s brighter than the sun.

*

It’s unfair.

Life is unfair.

It makes Li Qian angry sometimes.

She sits by grandma’s bedside in the hospital, the sundial-shaped pendant clutched between them.

Grandma’s health improves a bit. She recovers some of her ability to speak. She’ll be well enough to leave the hospital soon. Well enough for Li Qian to take care of her at home.

On one of the last days in the hospital she sits by grandma’s bedside, and grandma squeezes her hand and asks:

“Why has that boyfriend of yours not come to visit me yet?”

Li Qian doesn’t know how to tell her.

Grandma lives, but some of her memories never return.

Then she gets sick in a different way and even the memories she did still have start to slip away. Her speech too.

Li Qian never gets the chance to explain again, to hear the story of grandma’s ‘friend’ again, to bring a girlfriend home.

*

Li Qian walks through the hallways of the biology building. Professor Shen’s office is just around the corner, though that it not where she’s going. It’s way too late for office hours.

It’s Friday evening, later than she should probably still be here. She is just passing through on the way from the library. She turns the corner, looks up, and stops dead in her tracks.

Li Qian is frozen in place at the sight of an unknown woman waiting in front of professor Shen’s office.

The sight of a nice dress, nice heels, nice makeup. Gorgeous hair.

It takes a moment for her brain to come back online.

“Are you here for professor Shen?” Li Qian asks, vaguely proud of how steady her voice is, and the woman looks up at her, nodding and smiling in answer.

“It’s quite late,” Li Qian hears herself say, “office hours ended some time ago.”

The only reason she’s still on campus this late herself is because there are two books she needs for a paper for one of her classes that for some ungodly reason are not available online or allowed to be taken on loan from the library, and she’s spent the past hour-and-a-half making photocopies of them.

The woman chuckles and shakes her head, her hair bouncing around her face as she does.

“I promised I’d pick him up,” she explains, her voice nice and soft.

“Pick him up?” Li Qian squeaks, and she can feel the gears in her mind scrambling to a halt again.

“We’re going out for dinner.”

“Dinner?!”

Li Qian looks at this unknown and entirely too gorgeous woman standing in front of her, the woman who just told her she has a dinner date with professor Shen, and she wonders how she could have possibly been so wrong about her professor. 

And she was so sure before too…

Her bafflement must show on her face, because the woman laughs, shaking her head and raising her hands in a placating gesture.

“Don’t worry,” she says, and Li Qian blinks at her.

“I’m Cheng Xinyan” – the woman extends her hand – “I work at Dragon City Hospital. Shen Wei and I are old friends from when we were both students here ourselves.”

Li Qian shakes doctor Cheng’s hand, opens her mouth to respond, but no words come out, and she thinks she must look like a complete idiot right about now, but then a familiar voice saves her from further awkwardness.

“Xinyan! I hope I didn’t make you wait too long?”

Professor Shen crosses the distance between them, the heels of his shoes tapping on the tiles of the hallway.

Doctor Cheng smiles, a wide bright smile that lights up her whole face, and lets go of Li Qian’s hand. She turns towards the professor, puts a hand on his arm.

“Not at all!” she says, “I was just getting to know this nice student of yours!”

Li Qian blinks at the both of them, and professor Shen smiles at her, a little bit more than his usual close-lipped smile.

“Li Qian is an excellent student, and I’m very fortunate to get to teach her.”

Li Qian blushes at the praise, casts her gaze down at the ground.

“I’m sure she is,” doctor Cheng says softly, punctuated by a sincere smile, and then: “We should leave soon, or we’re going to be late.”

Professor Shen blinks at her, nods.

“Let me get my coat.”

Doctor Cheng asks Li Qian a few questions in the time it takes the professor to get his things and lock his office door. She doesn’t remember any of them.

She only remembers those warm eyes and red lips.

Only professor Shen’s bright smile when the two of them wave her goodbye and he tells her to go home soon and get some rest. When doctor Cheng takes his arm to lead him away.

Only their voices echoing through the hallway as they leave:

“How is Mingzhu-jie doing?” – a beat of silence – “She’s great. We’re great! I’m hoping to introduce her to my parents soon, but you know how schedules are…”

Li Qian wonders when her gaydar stopped working.

*

It’s a month after she joins the Student Group that Li Qian finally dares to.

She doesn’t quite dare to go alone, but Chan-jie drives her there so she doesn’t have to take a bus and accompanies her most of the way. Chan-jie holds her hand as they walk, squeezes it tightly in reassurance and encouragement, lets her know she’s there. Li Qian is grateful.

She leaves her friend by a bench under a large oak-tree and crosses the rest of the distance herself.

She makes her way past the rows and rows of gravestones until the finds the right one. She kneels.

Li Qian lets her gaze trail over the text written on the stones. Over her grandfather’s name and her father’s and her mother’s, the dates, the short quote at the bottom. A line from her mother’s favourite poem.

She busies herself with the incense and the flowers, to put it off a little longer, but she can’t drag it out forever.

She whispers the words to the wind, to the trees and the stones.

She hates that she feels the need to apologize to her parents for who she is. She promises to never again after today, that she’ll make them proud some other way, preserve the family name in her research instead.

When she walks back to the car with Chan-jie, the smell of the incense sticks to her clothing and her hair, but it isn’t stifling. It’s almost like a hug.

She will never apologize again for being honest.

There is freedom in honesty. In love.

*

Li Qian’s first time as substitute teacher for one of professor Shen’s courses doesn’t go quite the way she wanted it to.

The professor is away for a conference that takes place over the weekend, but unfortunately he has to leave a day early to get there, meaning he can’t teach his Friday afternoon class.

He’s warned Li Qian that a couple of students in this class can sometimes be a bit unruly.

Just her luck, that that’s the first one she gets to teach.

She walks into the room, and she knows professor Shen has announced to these first years why she’s here instead of him. She also knows they know who she is. Probably know her from the LGBTQ Student Group’s social media posts.

Most of them are kind. Bright-eyed and eager to learn, whoever they’re learning from.

Not all of them are.

She overhears three of the boys at the back of the lecture room whispering to each other as she steps inside, tries not to wince at their words, at the slur that falls from their lips so easily. She knows the rest of the class has heard it too. A quiet hush falls over the room.

It’s not the first time people have spoken about her that way, nor will it be the last, she knows, but that doesn’t ease the sting.

She doesn’t know what to do.

She lets it go.

She shouldn’t, but she does.

It throws her off her game, just a bit, and it stings too that she knows her lecture could’ve been better if not for those assholes, for her feelings.

Li Qian considers not telling professor Shen what happened, but he asks her the next time they see each other on Monday.

He invites her into his office, pours her a cup of tea, and asks her how it went. All the while he smiles at her in that particular way he always does, warm and inviting. A smile that shows that he cares, that he will listen to and remember every single one of her words.

Professor Shen smiles at her like that, asks her how it went, and the words tumble out of her mouth of their own accord.

Li Qian tells him what happened, bursts into tears halfway through the story, and her professor offers her his handkerchief and sits with her, a quiet and steady presence at her side.

She looks into his eyes afterwards, as he speaks to her in soft reassuring tones, and his expression is still warm and kind, but she can see the anger simmering underneath. Anger on her behalf.

He promises her that he will make sure such a thing never happens in his classroom again.

That Friday she steps back into the same lecture room. Professor Shen has asked her to, though she doesn’t know why.

As soon as he walks in she knows.

Professor Shen steps into the room, briefcase in hand, his grey suit as immaculate as ever. He walks to the front of the room, takes out his notes.

He reaches up to straighten his tie, gaze sweeping around the room intently, finding the right people sitting at the back. His gaze lingers on them, cold steel behind it, as his fingers brush over his tie-pin.

It’s a new one. Golden edges around rainbow stripes.

His gaze lingers on those three boys at the back, challenging, daring them to say a word.

Li Qian can all but hear them gulp behind her.

The next time she teaches that class, she has her own lesbian flag pin fixed to the lapel of her blazer.

They don’t even dare to look at her.

*

Professor Shen is distracted.

Chief Zhao is back to ask questions about the death of Li Qian’s classmate.

He’s asked her things already, has gone over her memory of the events of that night with her one more time, to make sure she really has told him everything she knows.

Professor Shen was supposed to be here only to support her. Now he’s being questioned himself.

Chief Zhao says something, and neither of them catch exactly what.

Li Qian because she’s too busy studying her professor.

Professor Shen because he is distracted.

His eyes are slightly wider than normal, gaze fixed on Chief Zhao’s lips.

“Professor Shen, are you listening to me?” the chief asks, chuckling softly, and the professor blinks, colour high on his cheeks.

“I apologize,” he says, gaze once more focused on the chief’s eyes, but Li Qian knows he’ll get lost in those just as easily. “It’s been a long day.”

It’s barely past noon, but Li Qian doesn’t need to tell either of them that.

*

She’s out on the street with a bunch of friends from the Student Group.

It’s summer. The air is warm and the sun bright in the sky. Li Qian is wearing heart-shaped sunglasses. She’s got a lesbian pride flag tied around her shoulders.

Dragon City’s yearly Gay Pride Festival has filled the streets with colour, the air with music.

It’s Li Qian’s second time, but xiao-Liang and Wenting have never been before. Chan-jie and Zuoxin-ge were adamant they “show the new kids around” this year too, as the two of them had done with her the year before.

So here they are, she and Chan-jie and Zuoxin-ge and xiao-Liang and Wenting, dragging each other from place to place, occasionally hiding in the shade.

Chan-jie’s make-up somehow still looks immaculate, despite the heat, the pink-purple-blue of the bisexual flag unsmudged on her eyelids. Li Qian sometimes wonders if she’s got magical make-up powers.

They’re walking along, Li Qian munching on a cookie she’s bought from one of the street vendors, when xiao-Liang suddenly pulls on her shirt.

“Qian-jie, Qian-jie, look,” he whisper-screams, voice barely carrying over the sound of the music, and Li Qian turns around. “Is that professor Shen over there?”

She blinks, frowns, and for a moment she thinks he’s joking, but then Chan-jie says, voice full of disbelief:

“Oh my god, you’re right!”

Li Qian looks around, tries to follow their gazes.

She sees doctor Cheng first. White sneakers, flowery summer dress, hair pulled back into a braid, bright smile on her face, lesbian flag colours painted on her right cheek. She crosses the road with brisk steps, holds out two cool water bottles, and there is the professor.

He’s waiting in the shade of a tree, an unfamiliar woman standing next to him. He’s dressed down just a tiny bit, probably because of the heat, normal immaculate three piece suit replaced by a simpler loose slacks and shirt combo.

“It really is him” – Li Qian hears Zuoxin-ge mumble at her side.

And then the professor turns his face to say something to doctor Cheng, and the gears in Li Qian’s mind come to a screeching halt.

On professor Shen’s right cheek, right under the edge of the frame of his glasses, is a smudge of colour. A small rainbow of painted stripes across his cheekbone.

“What do we do?” Wenting asks suddenly, the first of their little group to unfreeze, “Should we go say hello?”

Li Qian suddenly has no idea, but Chan-jie is reasonable as always:

“Nah,” she mumbles, “let’s not bother him before the summer break is over.”

The others quickly nod their assent, turning to follow after Zuoxin-ge’s cheerful “let’s go!”

Li Qian stands still for a moment longer, watches as professor Shen says something else to doctor Cheng, who bursts out laughing. The other woman – Mingzhu-jie? – who also has a lesbian flag painted on her cheek, a transgender flag on the other, bumps his shoulder with her elbow in response.

The professor smiles, bright and warm and unrestrained, carefree in a way Li Qian doesn’t think she’s ever really seen him before.

“Qian-jie,” xiao-Liang calls out from somewhere further down the street behind her, “are you coming?”

“On my way,” she calls back, right as professor Shen looks across the street, catches her gaze.

They look at each other for a moment, the professor blinking as he recognizes her. He waves at her, and Li Qian smiles, points at her right cheek, gives him a thumbs up.

She sees him laugh, duck his head, expression quietly pleased.

Have fun, professor, she mouths at him when he looks up again, and he nods. Message received.

Li Qian waves and turns around to run after her friends.

The summer isn’t over yet. There’s still more time for all of them to be a little bit carefree.

*

It’s Li Qian’s twentieth birthday.

She and grandma go to the graveyard together.

Li Qian lights the incense with only slightly shaky hands. When she turns to look at grandma both their cheeks are wet.

They don’t talk much on the way back. The bus is late, but it doesn’t matter. Their coats are warm.

They celebrate after. Just the two of them.

Li Qian will celebrate with friends another day. This one is for them. For them and the ghosts of the past. The spectre of the future.

Grandma spent most of the morning in the kitchen, baking something that made the whole house smell nice.

It always smells nice when grandma bakes. Li Qian wonders sometimes if her mother could bake like that as well. If her mother would have taught her in grandma’s stead if she’d been here.

Grandma didn’t teach her this morning. Li Qian was banned from the kitchen. For a surprise.

They take off their coats, and Li Qian offers to make tea, but she’s still not allowed in the kitchen.

She sits on the couch in the living room instead, her eyes closed, waiting for grandma’s familiar footsteps, slightly shuffled, soft slippers dragging across the floor.

Something is put down on the coffee table in front of her. The cushions of the couch dip beside her.

“You can open your eyes now,” grandma says, and Li Qian does.

She freezes, takes a shuddering breath.

On the table is a birthday cake. Small and round. Covered in frosting. Pinks and white and oranges from bottom to top.

“Happy birthday, sweetheart.”

Li Qian feels warm. So full of love she thinks her heart might burst. She welcomes it.

*

The video is grainy, but what it depicts is undeniable.

A large red car. Two men inside, visible through the windows. One is sitting in the driver’s seat, facing away from the camera. He’s wearing what seems to be a leather jacket. The other is wearing glasses.

The second man’s features are distorted by the graining, but there is no mistaking professor Shen. Nor the SID chief’s SUV.

It’s only about twelve seconds of footage. The car coming to a halt. The camera zooming in, hands holding the phone trembling, steadying just in time to capture chief Zhao leaning in and pressing a quick kiss to professor Shen’s lips. Professor Shen pulling away, smiling, shaking his head in fond exasperation. A jumble of colour as the hands holding the phone drop it in surprise.

It’s sent in a current second year group chat, which Li Qian is only in because she used to be a student mentor for that year, and which she forgot to leave because it is normally dead anyway.

It’s sent there, presumably by the student who filmed it, and the chat explodes with messages.

who is that? – Where did you get this? – Professor Shen is gay? – Of course he is, idiot. – What??? – WHO IS THAT? – isn’t that that weird cop who sometimes comes around?? – are you sure it’s them… the video quality’s pretty bad… – you think we’d mistake our favourite professor for someone else?? – just saying… – YOU GUYS KNEW THE PROFESSOR IS GAY? – why else wouldn’t he be married yet? – that’s no evidence at all, and how do you even know he isn’t? – no pictures on his desk, duh… – lmao you guys don’t know the story of the rainbow tie-pin? ohh boyyyy – he has flyers of the LGBTQ Student Group in his briefcase to hand out to people! – doesn’t mean he’s lgbt, maybe he’s just a very dedicated ally… – SHUT UP HE LITERALLY HAS A PRIDE FLAG STICKER ON HIS LAPTOP – PROFESSOR SHEN HAS A LAPTOP????????

This is where Li Qian breaks in, caught somewhere between quiet happiness at the content of the video and wide-eyed horror at the fact that it was filmed in the first place.

She takes the time to lecture her juniors on the meaning of privacy, making it clear to them in no uncertain words that it is both unprofessional and incredibly rude to film their professor in a private moment without his express permission.

Li Qian knows she can’t force any of these students to delete that video from their phones immediately, but she hopes they take her lecture to heart. She decides to add one extra warning:

Also, if I see this video anywhere online, I will murder you

…if the professor doesn’t get to you first.

It takes a moment for a reply to come in:

professor Shen wouldn’t know about it if it was online :P

And another more tentative one:

professor Shen wouldn’t murder anyone, right?

Li Qian doubles down:

hah, trust me, he will.

And I mean it. Do not.

Because even if he doesn’t, I definitely will.

Li Qian doesn’t see the video anywhere online.

The next time she sees professor Shen she gifts him another sticker for his laptop. A little bear with a rainbow background. A little extra incentive to check his email every now and then. It’s highly appreciated.

*

They walk in on the conversation by accident.

She and professor Shen enter a lecture room, not knowing that a few first year students have occupied it for a study break.

A study break that has apparently gone slightly off topic.

One of the girls laughs, and another, whom Li Qian recognizes as Deng Suyin – always on time, bit of a chatterbox, colourful buttons on her backpack – goes red in the face and yells:

“What if I don’t want to have a boyfriend, or have sex, or get married, or do any of that?!”

The rest of the girls fall silent all at once, staring at their friend in obvious confusion.

“Why wouldn’t you?” one of them asks after a moment, and Deng Suyin looks back at her, then at her other friends, and then across the room at Li Qian and the professor, and then she bursts into tears.

Li Qian is frozen in place for a moment, wanting to come to xiao-Deng’s rescue but not quite knowing how. Professor Shen has no such doubts.

“Some people don’t,” he says, his voice firm and even, either consciously or unconsciously slipping into lecture tones, albeit a little softer, “and that is perfectly normal, and those people don’t have to have sex or get married anyway just to conform to what society has wrongfully deemed to be the norm.”

The other girls turn around, look at the professor, their eyes wide in surprise.

“My apologies,” he says, voice even gentler now, slowly stepping further into the room, “we should’ve knocked first.”

“Is that true?” xiao-Deng whispers, her voice still choked by tears, “this is normal? I’m not broken?”

The words break Li Qian’s heart a little.

She can’t see professor Shen’s face from where she’s standing, but she can imagine his expression. She can imagine his gentle smile of encouragement, the warmth in his eyes as he hands the girl his handkerchief.

“A romantic or sexual relationship should not– is not a requirement for a happy life. Anyone who tries to convince you it is is wrong and doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”

Li Qian doesn’t think any of the girls notice the professor’s hesitation halfway through. She doesn’t think any of them will dwell on that subtle correction he makes to his own words. ‘Should not’ becoming ‘is not’. She can’t help but think there is a deeper layer to those words. Something personal the professor tries not to let show.

Deng Suyin doesn’t notice. A tentative smile blooms on her face.

“Thank you, professor,” she says, and Li Qian can hear the smile in his voice when he responds:

“Of course, and if you ever want to talk about anything like this, you know where to find me.”

The next time Li Qian sees Deng Suyin, the girl has a new button on her backpack. A drawing of a dragon in greens and purples and grey and black and white. Inconspicuous, but clear enough to anyone who knows.

“That’s a nice new button you have there,” Li Qian tells her in passing, and the smile she gets in return is like a ray of sunshine peeking through the clouds. Warm and bright and beautiful.

*

Li Qian doesn’t have many memories of her parents. She has none at all of her grandfather.

She asked grandma a couple times, when she was younger, before she learned about grandma’s old ‘friend’, but grandma never talked much of him.

Never dared to, probably, Li Qian thinks now, afraid to let slip a secret she had guarded for so long she couldn’t imagine ever letting it see the light of day.

She loved him, she always said, and Li Qian doesn’t think that is untrue. Doesn’t think their relationship was like what she herself had with her high school boyfriend, a thing made up of lies and expectations, though the expectations must surely have been there.

The love grandma had for grandpa was no lesser than the kind she had for her ‘friend’, but it was different.

Li Qian thinks if grandma had been born in modern times, her life might’ve gone differently.

Li Qian thinks if grandma had been born in modern times, she herself might not have existed at all.

Just the ghost of a friendship turned into a marriage of convenience that could’ve stayed a friendship.

*

“Professor Shen!” Li Qian calls out as soon as she sees him.

He’s standing at a table, hunched over his laptop, seemingly attempting to fight both it and the printer.

These are generally less than glorious battles, she knows. Everyone at DCU knows, even the first years, and it’s already her third, so she definitely knows.

“Professor?” she repeats when he doesn’t respond, and finally the professor looks up at her.

His brow is creased in miserable confusion. There are dark circles under his eyes.

He looks like hasn’t had nearly enough sleep in the past week. Like if this problem he’s having with his laptop and the printer takes much longer he might actually start crying.

“Professor, are you alright?”

The professor blinks, runs a hand through his hair, rubs at his tired eyes behind his glasses.

“I’m fine– just, the thing’s not…” – he points, frustration evident in the sharpness of the movement, then sighs, eyes closed, fingers pushing his glasses back up his nose and staying there. “I’m fine.”

It’s obviously a lie.

“Is it not printing?” she asks, trying not to sound like she’s pitying him.

“No.”

His tone is clipped, more so than Li Qian’s ever heard before, and she can see in the way he lowers his hand and straightens out his vest that he already feels guilty for it. She wonders what has made him so tired.

“Can I help?” she asks, and then she remembers.

Professor Shen left last Wednesday for a conference that took place on another continent and lasted the rest of the week.

It’s Monday now. He must have just returned, is probably still jet-lagged, and must be scrambling to catch up to the work he missed in his few days of absence.

“You don’t have to,” he says, his voice soft, and Li Qian doesn’t like that.

She doesn’t like how small he’s making himself.

She’s used to him being a steady solid presence on campus, to him knowing everything – except occasionally how to print something – so this, this tired timid misery. She doesn’t like it.

“I want to,” she insists, and the professor ducks his head, shuffles his feet, and finally nods.

“If it’s really no trouble…”

“It isn’t.”

It takes Li Qian ten minutes to figure out the problem has something to do with the printer and not with professor Shen’s laptop, and then another twenty to use her own phone to call down to the administration – professor Shen has the number memorized – to get one of the IT people to come up and fix it for them.

If she’s being honest Li Qian thinks professor Shen isn’t that bad with technology actually, no matter how much she and the other students like to joke about it. He can figure things out well enough if he takes the time for it. It’s just that nine out of ten times he also has the shittiest luck with it. It’s like the electronics simply hate being in the same room with him for a reason she cannot fathom.

When his documents are finally printed the professor thanks both Li Qian and the woman from IT profusely, and it’s only when Li Qian is already on her way to a different building for her next class that she realizes she forgot to give professor Shen the flyers.

She returns at the end of the day, makes her way through the hallways to his office, flyers in hand.

She knocks on his door, waiting for a response that doesn’t come, knocks again.

“Professor Shen?” – still no response.

Li Qian tentatively lowers her hand to the door handle, pushes it down, pushes the door open to peek inside.

“Professor? Oh.”

There he is. Professor Shen. Slumped over his desk, his head resting on his arms, fast asleep.

It’s an unusual sight, and unlike his insecurity from before it pulls a faint smile to Li Qian’s face. For a moment she wonders if she should wake him up, but she decides against it.

She looks down at the flyers in her hand, which she has designed. Colourful logo in the top right corner. He asked her for a few copies a week ago, to keep around in case they might be useful to anyone.

Professor Shen cares so much. It’s heart-warming.

He cares for all of his students, probably more than any other professor Li Qian has ever known, but he cares especially for those who are a bit like him. Those who are different, who might not necessarily stand out, but who also don’t quite fit in.

Professor Shen cares so much about his students, but Li Qian thinks he doesn’t always care for himself as well as he maybe should.

She closes the door softly behind her, sits down next to it.

She can work here for a bit, guard the professor’s door, make sure no one else disturbs him. She’ll give him the flyers later, or some other time. There’s time enough.

Li Qian puts the flyers down on the floor by her side and pulls out her laptop, tracing the colourful stickers on it with the tips of her finger, and that gives her an idea. Work momentarily forgotten, she looks for an online sticker shop.

When she does give professor Shen the flyers, the next time she sees him in class, the stack also includes a little envelope with a pride flag sticker for his laptop.

She also includes a little note saying he doesn’t have to use it if he doesn’t feel comfortable with it, but the next time Li Qian helps him out with an unruly printer, the sticker is right there, proudly stuck to the top right corner of his laptop.

*

The first time Li Qian takes another woman to bed is a revelation.

Soft skin and soft lips and fingers that know exactly how to make her body sing with pleasure.

Lips on her chest, reverent, let me take of you, let me show you how good it can be.

She arcs her back. She doesn’t know whether she wants to laugh or cry.

After, when she’s come back down to earth, and there are arms around her, soft kisses pressed into her hair, when finally the tears do come, that woman asks her:

“Are you okay?”

And that too is a revelation.

There are arms wrapped around her and she is warm and safe and loved.

The words won’t leave her mouth, and even she doesn’t know quite what the words would be even if she could say them.

“It’s alright,” the woman whispers, “I understand.”

Honesty takes many forms.

Tears on her cheeks, lips pressed to her hair, words whispered in her ears.

I understand.

I understand.

I understand.

There’s freedom in that too.

*

Zuoxin-ge’s new partners are nice.

Li Qian doesn’t know them well yet. She’s only met them once, but they’re both nice.

She knows Zhenzhen studies computer engineering, and Zihao-ge is a really good cook.

Li Qian and Chan-jie were both invited for dinner.

She helped Zihao-ge cut the vegetables while listening to a constant stream of chatter coming from Zhenzhen about anything ranging from their studies to their current favourite videogame and the dog their parents have – come on xiao-Qian look at it, isn’t it cute?

Zuoxin-ge smiled, and Zihao-ge quietly warned her not to cut her fingers.

If that is what domesticity is like, Li Qian thinks she would like to have a taste of that someday.

*

Professor Shen is unwell.

It’s easy to see.

Li Qian sits at the back of the lecture room. She’s here because she needs a second opinion on something she’s working on at the Ministry, and she trusts him like no one else, and she decided that if she must to go the university then she might as well listen in on one of his lectures while she’s here.

She would normally enjoy herself. It’s an advanced lecture, an interesting topic.

Today she doesn’t, because the professor is clearly unwell.

He looks a bit pale, a bit unsteady on his feet. He takes more time to get his thoughts in order in between sentences. He’s made two spelling mistakes that she knows everyone in the room has noticed, but no one has called him out on, which means this has happened before.

So, the professor is unwell, and has been unwell like this before in the recent past.

It’s not unwell in the ‘didn’t get enough sleep after a conference’ way, or in the ‘spent the weekend cooped up in the lab, while somehow expecting no repercussion’ way, or in what she now knows to be the ‘hay fever is considerably more debilitating in Dixingren than it is in Haixingren’ way. 

This is a different kind of unwell, and Li Qian doesn’t like it one bit.

Professor Shen finishes his lecture, and all the students start to pack up and leave, worried looks shared between them all.

Li Qian makes her way to the front of the room, where she sees Jiajia already trying to kindly bully her professor into sitting down for a bit.

He doesn’t, of course, waving her away with a kind smile that doesn’t quite reach his eyes. Jiajia however sticks to his side anyway, keeps pressing, and Li Qian quietly thinks the professor couldn’t have found himself a better replacement TA after she left.

Professor Shen still doesn’t sit down, but at least this way Jiajia is right there when, as soon as the door closes behind the last few students, he suddenly doubles over in pain, one hand pressed to his stomach and the other gripping onto the edge of his lectern in a death-grip that makes the wood creak in protest.

“Professor?” Jiajia calls out, worried and scared, “Professor?!”

Li Qian rushes the rest of the way to the front of the room, casting a quick glance at the door to make sure it stays closed.

She makes her way to professor Shen’s side, puts a hand on his arm, takes a good look at him.

His eyes are squeezed closed, face ghostly pale, his breathing short and wheezy and uneven. His hands are shaking too, and he looks even more unsteady than before.

“Professor Shen, you need to sit down,” she says, tone brooking no dissent, and unlike she expects he actually listens to her.

His chair is too far away, so Li Qian just guides him down to the floor, until he’s leaning back against the lectern, his knees pulled up to his chest, fingers digging into the fabric of his slacks as he tries not to cry from the pain.

“I’m fine,” he chokes out, and Li Qian huffs.

She reaches out to loosen his tie, mutters a quiet “shut up, professor” under her breath, and he blinks in surprise, squints at her with half-opened eyes.

“What do we do?” Jiajia asks, voice shaky with fear, slightly frantic, “Should I call an ambulance?”

“No.” – Li Qian takes out her phone, scrolls through her contact list, holds it out to her – “Just call this number, tell him what happened, tell him to get here ASAP.”

Fifteen minutes later Zhao Yunlan is there.

By then the professor is a little better. A little bit less pale, breathing easier, in less pain than he was before.

The chief crouches by his side, talks to him in a hushed, worried, loving tone of voice.

Li Qian helps him get professor Shen back to his feet, and she watches as the professor turns towards him, buries his face in the chief’s shoulder, clings to him as if to a lifeline as dizziness tries to pull him back to the ground.

“Ssssh, xiao-Wei,” the man whispers, “I’ve got you. Let’s get you home, eh?”

“I’ve got another class to teach at five,” the professor mumbles, voice muffled by the fabric of Zhao Yunlan’s coat, and the chief frowns.

“Jiajia here can take care of that, can’t she?”

Jiajia nods rapidly, a determined look in her eyes.

“See? Nothing to worry about.”

The professor takes a shuddering breath, stands up straight again, looks at Jiajia and Li Qian and then back at chief Zhao.

“Xiao-Wei?”

The professor is still unwell, but the way he looks at chief Zhao when the man calls him that makes it look as if those words from those lips alone might be enough to make him better.

It’s not true, but Li Qian thinks the chief can help in other ways as well. First of which is to take the professor home. Li Qian will ask him for his opinion on her problem another time.

There are some things professor Shen does for love that Li Qian finds scary, but she knows her own choice would be– was the same.

She can only hope that unlike she did at the time, he knows what he is doing.

*

Li Qian is packing up her things. A chorus of “happy holidays” and “see you next year” in the air around her as the other students get up and leave.

She’s taking her time packing, wanting to stay behind to ask professor Shen one last question, so she won’t be dependent on the off-chance that he might actually check his email over the break. 

It’s everyone’s last class before the winter break, most students going back home for the holidays. Li Qian is looking forward to spending more time with grandma for a couple weeks until the new year.

She packs her notebook into her bag, watches the professor clean up the blackboard with a sponge.

They’re not alone yet. One other student is still there.

Huang Liwei is still sitting at their desk, making no move to pack their things.

Li Qian watches them from across the room.

Their shoulders are hunched, back curled, face buried in their hands. They’re shaking. Ever so slightly.

They’re shaking.

Li Qian frowns, abandons her bag, makes her way over to her fellow student.

“Xiao-Huang?” she asks, her voice soft, “are you okay?”

Xiao-Huang startles, looks up at her, their cheeks wet, eyes red-rimmed.

“Oh no,” Li Qian murmurs, “what’s wrong?”

She crouches down, reaches out.

“Xiao-Huang?”

They tentatively take her hand, but shrug, shake their head, biting their lip, sniffling.

“Xiao-Huang?” she tries again, but they just curl in on themselves again, squeeze her hand tightly, as if that grip can help them keep further tears at bay.

Li Qian doesn’t know what to do, but then there are footsteps behind her. A quiet gentle voice:

“What’s going on here?”

Li Qian turns her head, looks up at professor Shen, who looks back at her with a soft worried expression, a frown creasing his brow.

He steps forward, and Li Qian makes space for him, watches him as he crouches next to her.

“Huang Liwei?” he asks, “Is everything alright? Is there anything I can do?”

And much like what Li Qian always find happening to her, xiao-Huang cannot resist the professor, not when he looks at them like that, with a smile that shows that he cares, that he will listen to and remember every single one of their words. Li Qian knows from first-hand experience that it’s impossible. When professor Shen turns the full wattage of that gentle warm genuine concern on you, you can’t not want to talk to him. 

“I just don’t want to go home…” xiao-Huang whispers, like it’s some sort of terrible secret that should’ve never seen the light of day. It makes Li Qian’s heart ache.

“What’s so terrible about going home?” the professor asks, quietly, and xiao-Huang sniffles, swallows, tries to blink against more tears threatening to spill down their cheeks.

“None of them see me,” they say, “I don’t want to go back home and have to listen to them all tell me what a ‘handsome man’ I’m becoming, and how I’m going to be ‘such a great husband and father’ one day. I just can’t do it.” – a gulping breath of air in between tears – “They only see their son, their grandson, their little nephew. They don’t see me.”

Li Qian squeezes xiao-Huang’s hand in quiet reassurance, watches them, watches the professor, and oh.

The look on professor Shen’s face as he listens to xiao-Huang’s words is one Li Qian will never forget.

It’s warm and soothing, almost wistful, the corners of his mouth pulled up just slightly in the softest gentlest smile Li Qian has ever seen, and there is a depth of sadness in his eyes, a tiredness that has nothing at all to do with lack of sleep, a type of longing she both can and can’t relate to. Something he and xiao-Huang share.

“It can be a difficult thing,” he says, his voice somehow both mournful and consoling at the same time, “to know that the people around us perceive us as something we are not.”

Li Qian looks at him in surprise, and xiao-Huang does too, their eyes wide and glittering.

“Professor?” they whisper, a quiet question. You too?

And professor Shen nods, a minute movement of his head, casts his gaze down at the floor.

“I don’t really care what people call me anymore, so I guess that makes it easier, but I understand your pain.”

He swallows, looks up again, and this time there is a fire in his eyes, warmth and determination.

“People can be cruel and ignorant,” he says, “and I cannot promise you that that will change, that they will learn. Some people don’t ever seem to want to learn, but some others do, and if you do need to go home, then you should find those people, friends, siblings, maybe a cousin or a kind uncle, and you should stick with them, because you are not alone. You are never alone in this.”

Li Qian watches as xiao-Huang nods, dabs at their eyes with their one free hand, and Li Qian softly squeezes the other.

“You have my number from the third year group chat, right?” she asks, waiting until xiao-Huang nods again before continuing: “You can always call me to talk, and if you really get sick of your own family then you can always come stay with me and my grandma.”

“And you can always email me over the break as well,” professor Shen adds.

“You’ll read those?”

The professor smiles, chuckles softly, warmly.

“If I know it’s important,” he says. “And this is very important to me.”

A week later Li Qian receives a call from xiao-Huang, to tell her they’ve told one of their cousins, who is being very supportive.

“Will you let professor Shen know?” Li Qian asks them.

“I already have,” comes the response, “hold up.”

A text comes in. It’s a screenshot of an email.

From: prof. dr. Shen Wei (shen.w.bio-eng@dcumail.edu)

Dear Huang Liwei

I am very glad to hear you have found a supportive family member. I hope this way you can at least enjoy your break a little bit. (As you can see, I am able to respond to emails. My computer only crashed once in the process. Do not hesitate to reach out in the future. Also please refrain from sharing this knowledge with any of my colleagues. It took me a year to train them out of emailing me, and I would like to keep it that way.)

Happy holidays, and see you next year :)

Sincerely,

Professor Shen

Li Qian can’t help but laugh into the phone as she reads what the professor has written.

“See?” xiao-Huang all but cackles, “the professor has figured out email, and now he’s even moved on to learning about emoticons? I swear by the end of next term he’ll be able to hack into the government registry and change the gender marker on my birth certificate himself!”

That makes Li Qian laugh even harder, and though she knows it’s a joke, she can’t help but think the professor really would do that if he could.

“Maybe he can join the website committee of the LGBTQ Student Group,” she jokes, and xiao-Huang laughs, “I know for a fact they’re always looking for new members.”

When Li Qian sends the professor an email of her own not much later, to ask a question about his lecture that she’d forgotten to ask after that last class, the reply takes only a day to come in:

From: prof. dr. Shen Wei (shen.w.bio-eng@dcumail.edu)

Dear Li Qian,

Attached to this email (I know how to do that now) you will find a written explanation of the literature that we reviewed in our last class. I hope this explanation answers your first question, but feel free to ask for further clarification if required.

As to your second question: I greatly appreciate you asking, but I really do not mind what people call me. You may continue to refer to me as "he" in both spoken conversation and written correspondence.

Happy holidays, and see you next year :)

Sincerely,

Professor Shen

*

She is out at a gay club with Chan-jie. To celebrate her graduation.

Li Qian has had a few drinks. The alcohol makes her limbs tingle pleasantly. Her heart beats in time with the beat of the music.

Chan-jie has settled down at the bar for the moment, is no doubt flirting with the bartender, but Li Qian only has eyes for the woman she’s dancing with.

Their eyes met from across the dance-floor, and Li Qian’s mouth went dry, her whole body tingling, but not from alcohol this time.

They met in the middle, smiled at each other, moved around each other for a while, whispering sweet nothings and names into each other’s ears, and then they tangled together.

They kiss, first soft, then hungry, and Li Qian vaguely hears Chan-jie yelling “you go girl!”, hears other people cheering.

Li Qian is floating on the music and the cheers, on the feeling of soft lips pressed against hers, the taste of a cocktail she hasn’t drunk herself being licked into her mouth.

She has never felt more alive.

She has never been more honest.

She has never been more proud.

*

It’s her twenty-fifth birthday.

Li Qian passes by the bench under the oak-tree without a glance. She’s alone today. She wanted to be this morning. She’ll celebrate with her friends tonight.

She passes by the rows of gravestones without thought. She doesn’t have to search.

When she arrives at the right ones she kneels. She puts her bag aside for the moment, lets her eyes trail over the text written on the stones. Over her grandfather’s name and her father’s and her mother’s, the dates, the short quote at the bottom. A line from her mother’s favourite poem.

Over grandma’s name.

She lights the incense with steady hands. She’s not here to hide, just to be and to remember.

When the incense burns, smoke curling up towards the heavens, the smell of it settling into her clothes and hair like an embrace, she takes a little box out of her bag.

She opens it to two identical pieces of cake. Soft and sweet. Both covered in frosting. Pinks and white and oranges from bottom to top.

She lays one of them out on a plate for grandma and her old friend – and a little bit for grandpa and her parents too if they want, a little bit for all the other people she has lost – and the other she takes herself.

The recipe wasn’t hard. Grandma has taught her well.

Li Qian eats her cake in silence.

There are no words needed for this honesty.

*

Li Qian laughs.

Xiao-Liang has climbed onto a table while some of the younger members of the Student Group – xiao-Lin, xiao-Deng, xiao-Huang – are cheering him on, and Wenting is trying to get him to stop dancing and come back down.

They’re at a party the Student Group has organized, and while Li Qian is no longer a student at DCU and technically no longer a member for this reason, she’s been invited anyway.

“In thanks for your services to the Gay Agenda,” Chan-jie had put it, and Li Qian had laughed out loud.

She wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Wouldn’t have missed seeing all of them for the world. Zuoxin-ge, Zhenzhen, Zihao-ge, Chan-jie herself, every single one of the people she’s loved and cherished during her student years.

She may work at the Ministry now, but she will always carry them with her in some way wherever she goes.

Li Qian may or may not have also laughingly passed the invitation along to professor Shen, who probably already knew it was happening anyway, because he works at the university and has eyes and ears and is always impeccably up to date with anything the Group does, frighteningly so for a man who supposedly doesn’t know how social media works.

She didn’t actually expect him to show up. Let alone for him to bring extra guests.

Li Qian suspects Zhao Yunlan convinced him. She can all but imagine the chief whining at professor Shen every hour of the day until the poor man finally caved, rolled his eyes in fond exasperation, and said yes, I’ll go, and yes, you can come along, and yes, I’ll ask Xinyan and Mingzhu-jie as well.

So, doctor Cheng and her now fiancé are currently helping themselves to another cocktail, and chief Zhao is dragging the professor onto the dancefloor.

Li Qian watches as professor Shen protests, though a bit half-heartedly, motioning at xiao-Liang wobbling dangerously on the table, his brow creased in worry.

Li Qian catches his eye, smiling.

Don’t worry, I’ve got this, you just enjoy yourself, she mouths at him, punctuating the statement with a shooing motion of her hand when he still seems unconvinced.

She makes her way over to xiao-Liang and his table and the small crowd of students that has gathered around him. It takes her some coaxing, but eventually she gets him safely down on the ground again, much to Wenting’s relief.

Li Qian looks at Chan-jie by the sound station, and she immediately understands.

The song ends, loud dance-beat replaced by a slow ballad.

She turns around, watches as chief Zhao wraps his arms around professor Shen’s waist, as the professor tentatively, somewhat shyly, moves his own hands to the chief’s shoulders.

Chief Zhao leads him a few steps, moving to the gentle rhythm of the music.

Li Qian watches him lean in, whisper something into the professor’s ear, watches as professor Shen seems to relax, forgetting the world around him for a moment, and sways into the other man’s embrace, drawn to him like a moth to a flame. No, like a flower to the sun, bright and safe and alive.

Li Qian watches as chief Zhao holds the professor close, arms around him, fingers buried in the fabric of his suit jacket, holds him like he intends to never let go again, which she knows is true.

Li Qian watches as professor Shen leans in in turn, hands moving higher, cupping the back of chief Zhao’s neck, his cheek, a thumb brushing across the man’s cheekbone in a movement so heartrendingly tender Li Qian almost has to look away.

They kiss. Meeting each other in the middle. Warm and slow and thorough. No eye or ear for anything or anyone else around them, as if it’s just them out here tonight, and it might as well be.

A hand brushes Li Qian’s shoulder, and she finally turns her head away.

Chan-jie is there. Her Dixingren make-up power – Li Qian was right after all – keeping the colours on her eyelids smooth and undisturbed. She’s beautiful, and she smiles at Li Qian, warm and soft and… nervous?

“Hey,” Li Qian greets, to break the silence.

“Hey yourself,” Chan-jie greets back, a little of that nervous energy slipping away, “there’s another slow song after this one. I know, because I’m the one who made the list.” – a pause, a slow breath – “Would you like to dance with me?”

Li Qian looks at her old friend, smiles, a little tingle in her stomach that has nothing to do with the alcohol she has consumed so far.

“I’d love to.”

There is freedom in honesty, Li Qian thinks as Chan-jie leads her out onto the dance floor.

Arms wrap around her.

She is warm and safe and loved, much like professor Shen.

Li Qian has had her fair share of hardship, but tonight life is only beautiful.

Tonight she loves.

Her grandma would be proud.