My thanks to Ayashi for the beta, and Vivian for the late-night Chinese chats. Any remaining mistakes are mine alone. My linguistic focus in Asian Studies was Japanese. *sheepish*
Also, any plot points that are vague here will be cleared up in Chapter Two. I promise.
*crosses fingers, takes a deep breath* Here we go.
WARNING: This chapter contains some blood, gore, and disturbing concepts. It was very loosely inspired by the short Chinese film Dumplings. The film itself is a masterpiece of pacing horror and breathless understanding. There are hardly words to express its horrific genius, andI highly reccommend it-- but only if you have a strong stomach. I promise not be too gross-, if only because I'm possessed of a delicate constitution myself. ^^
DISCLAIMER: Torchwood is copyright BBC, and Russel T. Davies. I'm making no money off this, and am not affliated with the above. Why can't we have nice things!? The short film Dumplings was written by Lillian Lee and directed by Fruit Chan. No infringement is intended in either case-- only honest admiration.
In Amnion 1/?
by Meredith Bronwen Mallory
Hua She Street Number 7 had a rot spreading through it; an infection that had settled into the concrete and steel girders, moving along electrical wires with the pace of an all-consuming, fatal disease. The street itself was freshly paved, to facilitate the traffic that came from the warehouse district-- but a step off that shiny blacktop was like a step in some superstitious, childhood rhyme. Jack himself walked purposefully along the broken sidewalk, smothered by the pregnant, humid air. Typhoon season lay heavily the autonomous Chinese port city of Macao, even on a day that spilled sunlight down through the tall, bland apartment buildings. The neglect was obvious in the peeling paint and littered corners, and a part of Jack catalogued everything with a weary soldier's instinct. The air itself smelled of malaise-- rust and home-cooked meals; spray paint, chemicals, and noodle soup. He had paid the cab driver at the intersection, observing the young man's obvious surprise.
"Here?" the driver had asked in barely-accented English. A very young man, Jack had mentally revised, seeing the ear-buds laying like limp tendrils around cabbie's neck, wire disappearing under his neon t-shirt. "Are you sure, man?"
"I'm sure," Jack felt that smile on his own face, charming and thoughtless. It seemed a separate thing, an anachronism pulled from his pocket, but it worked. With one roll of slim, untried shoulders, the driver had dismissed any curiosity about the American and his business on Hua She Street. So much the better.
The sounds of the city chased to the edges of this out-of-the-way district; the rhymth of traffic, spending, and work. How quickly the world went back to its old ways, as if it had simply missed one step in a long and complicated dance. That missing beat-- the 456-- became burried as human beings stubbornly insisted on their small, mundane routines.
The building he was looking for was easy to find, though hardly distinguishable from the others. They were all relics of 60's housing projects, cement apartment cubicles stacked atop one another. Their stupid, merciless geometry matched that of the district itself, which meandered into odd angles and dark alleys, barely conforming to any orderly city grid. Jack gazed up at the complex for a moment; absently making note of the laundry-laced balconies, the tiny heat-wilted plants. He pushed the gate aside, ignoring the looks of surprise as he walked into the courtyard. It was miserably hot outside, but the tenants clustered together on boxes or in lawn chairs, looking for at least the hope of moving air. Jack himself still wore the RAF coat Ianto had pilfered for him-- he felt sick and dizzy, but that had nothing to do with the heat. He kept an even pace past the old, shirtless men who had stopped playing Mahjong, he nodded to the old ladies with their paper fans and deep, knowing chuckles. There were a few children playing ball at the far end of the open space, and they were the only ones who paid Jack no heed as he walked towards the open lift. His stomach rolled, and the coat felt heavy on his shoulders.
He wouldn't want you to do this, Jack told himself, clenching a fist. There was a shiver in him that could not be expressed physically, he felt the ache and drain of those left to die on the battlefield. Except-- and here he did smile, real and horrible-- he was the one who usually ordered the retreat. His smile unnerved the old man who entered the lift with him, but those milky, aged eyes narrowed in understanding. A bent finger pressed the fourth button before Jack could even make a move. The immortal examined his own mind for a moment, a habit he'd falling into with disturbing ease in the four days since Thames House. Right now, he was looking for any sense of chagrin or embarrassment at the old man's regard. He had to search for his own feelings, grope for understanding in a space now divorced from himself. It was like functioning under a steady rain of anesthesia. Not so bad, really-- he was more concerned about waking to the day the numbness had faded.
Ah, but you're gonna fix this, aren't you? It was the voice of John Hart, but the thoughts were his own, sneering at how confident he'd once been. The great and mighty Captain.
Fourth floor, apartment 45.
The door itself was plain, covered by a protective iron lattice. The four and five were simple black and white stickers on faded beige paint.
Four, five, six.
Pick up sticks! That was an old rhyme, one his Alice had once sung.)
Jack took another breath full of hot, sticky air, and he seemed to find a little balance. He stood in front of the door, looking at the buzzer for a moment. Outside, he could hear the children playing in the courtyard, the bounce of the ball on the concrete. A few short days ago, those children had been speaking an alien message in horrifying, synchronized English. Now they ran and wrestled, laughed as if nothing had ever happened.
There are certain things you just can't un-happen, the Doctor of his memory lectured, all big ears and bright eyes. Some threads cannot be pulled without destroying the whole design.
"Design be damned," Jack muttered. He pushed the buzzer.
As the door opened, Jack schooled his face into a look of careful disinterest. The woman behind it was exactly as he remembered her, right down to the look of anger and distrust that leapt to her face.
"Hwai dan!" she said shrilly, candy pink lips turning down. "Who has left this disgusting thing by my door?"
"Hello, Lan Wei," Jack said politely.
"Captain Harkness," she returned, using the same tone for his name as she had for the curse. Even in her blue platform heels, she was much shorter than Jack, but Wei scowled at him as if they were nose to nose. Jack looked back mildly, seeing that pale, moon-round face, the dark eyes. It was all the same. For a moment, he understood what the Doctor had meant with that hurtful whisper of 'wrong'. Wei was wearing her long, inky hair in childish twin buns; a blue and yellow sundress clung to her lithe form, along with an abundance of plastic jewelry, but she was just the same as when he'd last seen her in 1919. Only the costume had changed-- no longer the fine embroidered silks of a rich man's concubine, but the perky, clashing colors of a modern 21st century girl. She appeared no older than late twenties, not a wrinkle or blemish in sight.
And she smelled. That sickening, too-sweet flower scent that had first served to inform Jack of her true nature almost a century ago.
They stood staring at each other through the iron screen for a long moment, until a soft voice called to Wei from within the dim apartment.
"Mei wen ti," she called back in soft, soothing tones. Crossing her arms over her small chest, she turned back to Jack. "I have customer now," she informed in deliberate, accented English. "Why are you here?" She stood on tiptoes, peering between the mesh as if trying to look behind Jack. "You bring men now, guns? For what?"
"I have nothing," Jack said quietly. The unvarnished, almost bland emptiness of that statement must have registered with Wei, for she looked him over again. Her scrutiny was much more detailed this time; an almost insectile look of appraisal came over her expression. Suddenly, Wei clapped in delight.
"You need something," she poked a finger at him.
No use denying it. "Yes."
"You grieve," she added, licking delicately at the air.
"Yes." Jack bit the inside of his cheek and nodded. Somewhere, far off in another person's body, there were blunt knives pressing against defenseless flesh. He was aware of the sensation, but he didn't feel it.
"Now you understand-- maybe little-- what you do to me, long ago." Wei's pleasure at his circumstances was quickly dissipating the wake of her old grudge. Jack took a step closer to the screen, though the scent of flowers and decay was overwhelming.
"Please," he said.
"You not say please!" Wei exclaimed, eyes wide in surprise. "You not 'please' sort of person. What you really want?" There was another soft call from inside the apartment, and Jack nodded towards it.
"Your customer," he reminded her. And then, because it had knocked her off guard before, he added, "Please. I need a favor."
Wei swore long and faithfully in an old village dialect, but she opened the screen. "Come in."
The hallway was short, narrow, and undeserving of the name. Jack ignored the flicker of his own reflection as he passed the faux gilded mirror and came into the main room. The dim lighting was deliberate-- Wei had drawn all the curtains, so that the only illumination came from the narrow kitchen doorway, and a little rose crystal lamp by the sofa. The living space itself was small; barely enough room for the couch, a small side table, and a cot that had been set up almost as a centerpiece. He was not surprised to see a naked woman laying face down on the cot's folded duvet, though she was certainly surprised to see him. Her soft, choked gasp filled the motionless air, making the room seem suddenly more cramped. Wei bustled quickly to her customer's side, laying soothing hands on the older woman's back.
"Mei wen ti," she said cheerfully, continuing in Chinese. "Please don't worry. This man is another customer. He's stupid. He doesn't understand us." Shooting Jack a narrow look, she said in loud, careful English, "Please sit down on the couch." Jack nodded, moving to take a seat on the end furthest away. Wei was quick to admonish him to take off his coat. "Hot. Too hot!" She waved a hand. "No coat."
And her eyes followed every movement as Jack carefully folded it in his lap, his fingers stroking along the wool and Ianto's thoughtful gesture. That brave smile in the warehouse, proud and trusting. He worked hard not to fist his hand in the material, because he knew she was watching. Instead, he looked at the woman on the cot-- brief glances, easily sizing her up. Breathing slowly, she lay with her head pillowed on her arms, facing shyly away from the unexpected guest. She was in her late forties-- still beautiful, from what Jack had seen, but it was a beauty that took work. On the opposite end of the sofa, he could see her designer shoes, handbag and ladies suit carefully laid out, all in a matching almost-topaz orange that was so fashionable right now. She was, in short, exactly the sort of client Lan Wei catered to. He wondered briefly how Wei told her apart from all the rest.
"You see, Mrs. Yang?" Wei said, as if responding to Jack's thoughts. "He is only a foreigner-- I'm sorry he bothered us, but I had no idea he was coming. Just shows up, asking for things."
"Just like a man," Mrs. Yang murmured as Wei massaged her shoulders.
Laughing, Wei reached for the bowl on the side table, dipping her hands in the contents. Jack could smell the lavender she had added to the topical potion, but even that could not fully conceal the coppery scent. Wei rubbed the syrupy red liquid between her hands and began working it into the skin of Mrs. Yang's back. From the brown, drying stains on the duvet, Jack could only assume she'd already done the front. So many horrors had passed before his eyes. He looked at the bowl, at Wei's hands; he knew and understood and was not surprised. In the 51st Century, he'd lost his best friend to foes so terrible their name could not be spoken. As a Time Agent, he'd committed murder, theft and torture at his superiors' command. He'd barely even begun to admit to Ianto the depth and scope of his deeds during his time with Torchwood. No matter how much he trusted the young man, in the end, there were simply too many horrible stories to tell. He'd done terrible things-- deliberately, by accident, sometimes even with the best of intentions. After having seen much more horrific crimes
(Stephen's smooth and bloody and trusting face)
Jack still recognized the evil in this cheap apartment. It was the evil of convenience, of vanity and pride.
Jack glanced around the room-- saw the peeling green paint and the shelves cluttered with chipped porcelain figures. The wooden floor had watermarks; every surface smelled of Wei and her funeral pyre flowers.
What am I doing here? He asked himself. The coat was in his lap, but he was still too hot. Wei and Mrs. Yang were talking, but he couldn't force his brain to translate. Dizziness assaulted him, nausea grabbed him from behind. He wanted to put the coat back on, and couldn't remember why.
(Ianto, down there, in the void so dark it is not darkness. Ianto's strong, elegant hands, holding his coat. That smile when he went to help the Doctor save the stolen Earth. Laughter floating in the stillness of the hub, and Ianto counted and they played hide and seek.)
I don't want to wake up from dying and always be waiting for his touch, Jack thought. It was the first true grieving thought he'd had since Thames House-- everything else had been rage, denial, or planning. His purpose solidified within him; a possessive rush of longing and affection. The last thing I said to him was 'don't'. I'm going to make that un-happen.
The nausea slid off his skin, and Jack made himself translate the low, confiding tones of Wei and her client.
"I never charge them, because I am doing them a favor, and they are doing one for me." Wei was saying, making a proud gesture with her hand towards the rows of ceramic statues. One of them was Kwan Yin, the Chinese goddess of Mercy. "But they often bring me gifts. It would be rude to turn them down."
"Oh, yes," Mrs. Yang agreed, making a show of admiring Wei's collection even as the other woman began massaging the potion into her calves.
"The other day," Wei added in an intimate, conspiring tone, "I saw a young girl who was twelve."
"Yes, it was. But it makes for a much more potent formula." Wei dipped her hands back in the bowl, taking care not to drip on her flowered sundress. Her bracelets jingled and clicked as she moved her hands. "Young birth and young death adds a lot to the mix. I saved it for you." She was speaking to Mrs. Yang, but her words were for Jack. She tilted her chin at him, daring him to say something.
"I'm so appreciative," Mrs. Yang oozed. "Your recommendation was so truthful! I already see a difference in my skin."
"Indeed, the flesh on your neck is much more firm. You were very concerned about that."
Mrs. Yang flicked a shy glance at Jack, but was apparently completely convinced he only spoke English. She giggled as she confided, "My breasts and buttox, too! When we went to the gym, my friends all thought I had been secretly exercising behind their backs!" The women giggled together, but Jack held Wei's long gaze. When he was sure she was looking, he purposefully turned his own eyes towards a particular picture frame, sitting in a place of honor amongst his host's many gifts. Wei's smile vanished.
Oblivious, Mrs. Yang continued, soft and searching, "I do, however, worry about my face. It is not working so quickly there."
"You must not concern yourself!" Wei declared, voice cheerful and face grim. "This is why you must eat the food I have prepared for you. I am sending it home with you in a cooler-- dumplings and noodle soup, all cooked in my special recipe. You must eat it all, never mind what it's made out of. You see, you can not just bring your beauty back from the outside-- you must work from the inside, too. When you were a young girl, did your spirit not course so much more readily in your body? It will be that way again, as the youthful energy soaks into you. You are still that beautiful young girl, but your husband can not see it. Men are blind, they are fools, always groping for younger flesh. He does not respect all you have done for him as his faithful wife. But we will make him see that again!"
Again, Jack forced his own tongue still. Caught up in the passion and fever of Wei's little speech, Mrs. Yang gave an enraptured sigh and swore to follow every one of girl's instructions. It might have been strange to see the older woman looking at Wei's young face with the expression of a child grateful for her elder sister's words of wisdom, but Jack knew the truth. There were words for Lan Wei-- precise ones in long-forgotten tongues, useless ones that had been tainted by modern glitz and gore. Named or not, she was what she was, a monster with dimples and a delicate laugh. She was by no means immortal-- one day she would fall and rise no more, just as the rest of the human race. Even the longevity of her youth was remarkable only for the time period in which she lived. It was her methodology that set her apart, twisting an odd anecdote into something infectous and sinister. Its consequences broke the three-fold rule of magic, leaving her untouched in the eye of the storm. And yet, she existed here, in this tiny apartment, exchanging external decay for a far more permanent, internal stain.
As Wei began one final rub down, Jack instead turned to regard the picture situated on the shelf. There was one quick, shallow prick of deja vu at the back of his neck; he thought of seeing his own picture on Estelle's mantel, and all the questions that had so readily leapt to Gwen's mouth. The picture on Wei's shelf was very similar in its quiet, unobtrusive statement of the obvious. The sepia photograph was old-- there were creases around the edges that spoke of many frames, many places of honor to look down from. Two women sat together in a garden, dressed in elegant, traditionally embroidered qipao, gracious and poised. The one on the right was very obviously Lan Wei-- her hair was swept up in jeweled combs and her smile absent, but it was the very same face. The girl on the left no longer existed. She had died in 1919; Jack himself had watched her fatal convulsions, and he remembered her name. Ahn Mei Huang was smiling, just slightly, in the picture-- there were jade beads roped about her neck, and Wei had her hand coiled in them possessively. Jack could imagine her blushing, embarrassed giggle. Wei's other hand was hidden, but Jack imagined it was resting against the small of Ahn Mei's back, just as he had so often placed his hand protectively at the base of Ianto's spine. The Captain smiled inwardly-- the portrait was professional, paid for by a rich Cantonese businessman. It seemed unfathomable that Mr. Huang could look at that photo and not know what lay between his fourth and fifth wives.
"Stop!" Wei said loudly, her voice a hook to the present. Jack turned to see her face flushed with anger. "You not have the right." Mrs. Yang was sitting up on the cot, clutching a sheet for modesty and looking at Wei with questions on her face. It occurred to Jack that she was truly the one at a disadvantage, but he was glad he had not thought of it earlier. He had no desire to speak to Wei in front of an audience, whether they were able to understand or not. "Go out on the balcony." Wei made shooing motions with her hands, bracelets clicking, "Mrs. Yang now wipe off and get dressed."
Jack complied, eager for a break from the stuffy apartment, and a chance to reinforce his strategy. He folded his coat over his arm and closed the sliding glass door behind him, taking a moment to appreciate the fresh air. The tall apartment buildings clustered all around, looking at him with thousands of dumb glass eyes, but there was slight view of the sea flanked by two of the larger towers. Jack fixed his gaze on that-- the blue of the ocean was bright and tropical, reminding him of nothing. He gazed at its blank merger of horizons, sky and sea. Not at all like Cardiff Bay, deep gray-blue, somehow moving in its stillness. That kind of blue was...
(Jack had liked to playfully wax poet about Ianto's eyes, even if it was the short-cut to a cranky Welshman. Ianto had no patience for such teasing-- he'd smack Jack and tell him not quit his day job. Sometimes, Jack left it at that, punctuating with what Ianto called his 'cheeky pornographic grin', coaxing genuine laughter from the younger man. But, if he persevered, if he dipped his voice low and smokey and sincere, the results were even more spectacular. Ianto would blush and squirm, he'd try to work up anger through his natural embarrassment and, in that confusing tumult, there were flashes of just how young and earnest the archivist was. That little curl he'd make into himself, even as Jack pulled him close and kissed him into pliancy, had all the savor of the rarest wine.)
Jack felt a stab of pain, somewhere back behind his ribs. It had its twin in the memory of desire, of the honest affection Ianto could knife through him, effortless, as if he hadn't meant to at all. Push, pull.
("I hate the word 'couple'.")
Pull, push. The sound of the tide; like breathing.
Fisting his hand around the tiny balcony's railing, Jack cleared his mind with that unfamiliar, pacific blue. He summoned Rose's champagne con-man from the past, thinking through contingencies, blueprints in his mind. Reaching in his coat pocket, he flipped open the cellphone and was rewarded with the blinking icon for a text message. He'd ditched his old mobile when he left Britain, and the untraceable disposalable he'd purchased had a number he'd given only to a select few. The message itself contained three words:
Received. No damage.
His smile was brittle, but the satisfaction was real. So many people from his long life owed him favors. He supposed some of them thought they were getting off easy with the simple smuggling transport of a... body. But he would consider the reward reaped in tenfold now. Ianto was secure in preservation casket; the box itself was now safely through the border inspection of Macao.
The balcony door slid open; Jack stepped past a blank-faced Wei to find no trace of the cot or Mrs. Yang. The older woman had taken her 'special recipe' and gone. Now, Wei stood in front of him, holding the framed portrait in her hand. She looked very young in her twin buns and clunky heels. In her other hand, nails painted neon blue and yellow, she clutched a butcher knife. Jack raised an eyebrow, more than ready to call her bluff. Little girl with old, hate-filled eyes.
"I wish I kill you," she said, very honestly. "I wish I kill you for good."
"You can't." Also the plain truth.
Wei tossed the knife on the sofa, holding the photograph with both hands. Her thumb caressed the glass over Ahn Mei's face, shoulders slumping a little. "What you *want*?"
He thought of Ianto, in the darkness. Breathing quietly, laying carefully still. There were things you couldn't put a name to, words that could not be uttered. Instead, they stuck in your throat, made it hard to breathe-- you could only stammer 'don't', and what good did that do anyone? Leading back to the darkness, which swallowed confessions and intent.
Jack told her, very simply.
"I only want what's mine."
Hwai dan- Bad egg / rotten egg. An insult.
Mei Wen Ti- Don't worry / it's not a problem.
Qipao- Traditional Chinese robes for women. Not the form-fitting Cheongsam of today, but a more ornate, loose fitting embroidered dress worn by the upperclass in the early 1900's.
Assuming I haven't scared everyone off entirely. *wrings hands* But you know where to find me for next weeks installment. *hopeful puppy eyes*