As always, I can't thank you guys enough for taking the time to read my story. I think I have the best bunch of readers around-- you're all so sweet and patient with my trippy ways. ^__^ I'm so pleased so many people enjoyed the big ritual! *wipes away sweatdrop* If I could trouble you a bit more to let me know what you think of this chapter, I'd be very appreciative. Big thanks also go to Ayashi for the beta, and Vivian for the continued Chinese lessons. She even teaches me the naughty words-- what a friend! *giggles*
Thanks again for reading,
DISCLAIMER: Torchwood is copyright BBC, and Russel T. Davies. I'm making no money off this, and am not affiliated 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.
Prologue | Chapter One | Chapter Two | Chapter Three | Chapter Four | Chapter Five | Chapter Six | Chapter Seven
In Amnion 8/?
by Meredith Bronwen Mallory
Quarter after eight on July 14th, the last blush of sunset had fully faded from Macao's sky. At Hua She Street 10, Jack Harkness was slumping against the black curve of the preservation casket, whispering to, waiting for, the young man concealed within. In her own apartment, Lan Wei was packing her antique valise, running an almost soothing hand along the silk wrappings that safely obscured The Box. Nearby, the knife she would stab Harkness with flashed dully, reflecting the evening's veil. In his own heavily-draped fifth floor room, Sun Gao Man-- Shuang's father-- was still asleep on the bottom level of the bunk they shared. In fifteen minutes, his alarm would go off and he would rise for his evening shift in the Entertainment District. Unaccustomed worry would creep along his brow as he shaved and changed into his uniform. He'd glance increasingly at the clock as he took his gun from its lockbox, hoping his boy had come directly from the soccer field. Irritation at what he perceived as youthful cowardice would be gone-- the 4-5-6 had blasted it away, for a little while at least. Five blocks away, the boy and his friend were taking their time coming home.
With the moldering, fear-soaked Tunnel firmly behind them, Shuang and Ming had walked back towards Hua She Street slowly, not bothering to hurry even though the distance itself was relatively short. Instead, they matched each other's pace without sparing a thought, lingering as the evening stole the worst of summer's heat from the air. Adults moved around them, all absorbed in their own agendas-- the business men climbing from their loud taxis, the part time college boys weaving their speedy bikes through the sidewalk throng. Near the arcade, the pair dodged around a group of teenage girls, arguing loudly about the nearest subway station and their respective curfews. Some of the shops were closing, pulling steel lacing across windows, like giants closing sleep heavy eyes. They saw young couples coming and going from movies or dinner; waitresses and busboys laboring under thick garbage bags; factory workers tilting their faces up to the cloudy sky, surprised by feel of summer breeze. And, through it all, Shuang and Ming moved like ghosts, gifted with that invisibility particular to children. Grown gazes registered them but slid away quickly, turning back inward, to checkbooks and electric bills, to their boss or their own children, or what was for dinner. The children knew this, and they navigated through the mass of work-worry love-worry money-worry as though picking their way deftly through an overgrown forest.
"People don't move in to Number Ten," Shuang said after a long, thoughtful pause. The weight of this knowledge seemed more dark and pressing than the bellies of the evening clouds. "Baba says we'll have to move out after New Year's, so why would someone move in?" To Shuang, the New Year seemed impossibly distant, if somewhat worrying. It was way past his birthday, and even past the All District Math Competition, but he knew that adults measured time differently. Baba often grumbled about the pressing need to 'find a new place', something that always made Shuang's stomach clutch, a fist curling up along his insides.
"I don't know," Ming said honestly, rolling her tiny shoulders. After a beat, she spread her hands a bit. "He is an American." Together, they contemplated this added layer of complexity. Shuang broke first, cracking a little smile that set Ming off into high, quiet giggles.
"I bet everyone was peeking out to get a look," the boy said slyly. Ming nodded, clasping her hands over her chest with mock-seriousness.
"Oh, very much! All the Moms came out to hang their laundry, even though the news said it will probably rain tonight. The old men were pointing, and Ms. Choi even let us all stand out on the balcony because she wanted a look at him so badly!"
"Well?" Shuang prompted. Ms Choi was what Baba called a 'busybody', which Shuang thought meant that-- while her body was very round-- her mouth moved very fast. If anyone knew anything about the new tenant on his very first day, it would be her.
"Old Mrs Yu almost ran all the way up the stairs after he came." Ming held up a finger, as if to mark the strangeness of the elderly woman doing anything in a rush. "She said that Mr. Yu took him upstairs to his room, and when he did he asked the American if he was a drug dealer!"
"If he was, he might have killed Mr. Yu for that!" The boy's mouth formed a little 'o' that matched his friend's. "What if he had been a gangster, or a criminal from overseas?"
"That's what Mrs. Yu said. She was very upset at him for being so foolish."
"What did he say? The American?" Shuang's voice was quiet, more than a little awed by the elderly landlord's daring.
"Ms. Yu said that the American-- his name is Jack Harkness--" Ming hesitated a little over the unfamiliar syllables, "laughed and said 'no'."
Frowning, Shuang chewed on his lower lip. "I'd be mad if someone called me a drug lord and I really wasn't one. Did he say why he came here, then?"
"No." Twirling a strand of hair around one finger, Ming smiled distantly. "Maybe he has a sad past, like the new mysterious stranger on Youthful Star."
"Yauh mouh gaau cho a!" Shuang laughed, giving the older girl a playful shove. "Ming, not everything is like one of your soap operas."
"I know," she blushed a little, "but even Ms Choi said he's handsome enough to be a movie star." Shuang just rolled his eyes, even as he accepted her light smack on the arm in return.
There was a row of small clothing shops near the corner, and Ming trailed a bit behind him as they made their way to the crosswalk, her eyes drinking in the drape of cloth and patterns. He indulged her, knowing she did the same when they passed comic stalls in the market. Moving ahead to the curb, he watched the WALK light flicker away even as Ming drew even with him once more. Swinging his book bag up on a near by bench, Shuang reached into one of the pockets and drew out his cherry sucker. He glanced between the bright wrapper and the light several times, thinking how strange it was that Baba and his teachers were always warning about strangers with candy, and yet doctors gave out candy, too. He had no idea what a stranger's goal would be, but doctors definitely wanted to prick you with needles and put wooden sticks down your throat. Candy hardly seemed like a fair trade.
"I think we should at least get one piece of candy for every needle," he said, zipping his bag again. Ming smiled just a little as they reflexively grasped hands to cross on WALK. When they stepped onto the next curb, she began digging in her little red purse, producing a lollipop of her own.
"I don't think there'd be enough candy for all the children in Macao if they did that." Daintily, she held the sucker out between thumb and forefinger. "Rootbeer for cherry?"
"Yes!" Shuang said, making the trade and tearing the wrapper off his prize. Shamelessly, he bit into the hard candy, watching as Ming approached hers with delicate licks.
Now they were only a block from home, and Shuang began to feel the shift in the texture and shadows around him. He would never be able to put it into words, but there was something different about Hua She Street. It wasn't obviously bad, like the Tunnel-- in fact, there weren't any dead-things or ghostly leavings at all. Such things, Mama had assured him long ago, were actually quite rare. If just dying left a big mark, she'd said, then all the world would be haunted. Sun Zhu Liao had not had all the answers her son desired, but she did have thirty years of experience negotiating between the solid world and the strange wisps of death that bled in, like spots of wine spilled by some thoughtless god. Shuang's heart hurt a little, a feeling of being stabbed from the inside, but he brought the image of Mama to mind easily in spite of it.
(Mama teaches him this tightrope trick before he even truly realizes he's learning it. With the same deep care and protection she applies to washing his hair and bandaging his scrapes, she shows him how to tell the difference between 'real' and 'not-real'. If all the world is blind, then she shows him how to pretend he can't see, how to look through horrible things and suck in a deep breath, because you couldn't afford to react when others were around. Slight in form and bubbly in her outlook, Zhu Liao makes blending in an art form, confining the watchfulness of her true graze to the corners of her eyes.
At the funeral, they'll all say she was such a caring nurse, such a down-to-earth wife and mother, always happy and eager to help. Shuang's grief twines with rage, then, because none of them know or understand. They can't tell that her cheerful voice is often loud just to drown out other things. They don't know that she sometimes cries in the bath after a patient dies, because she can see the black colors moving in and around those in her care but can't tell anyone about it. Sometimes, she gathers Shuang into her lap and just holds him, resting her cheek against his hair, and he sits there as long as she needs him to. Of course he does-- she is Mama, she is his compass, and he knows that when she holds him she is really reminding herself that she isn't one-of-a-kind. There is an aloneness in being special that no one ever draws into comic books or shows in the movies. Once, he asks her if there are others like them-- or maybe even a school, like in Harry Potter-- but she only draws a loving, blunt finger along his cheek and shakes her head. She says she doesn't know.
And that is the final flourish, the 'Abracadabra!' to tie it all off with a bang. Zhu Liao never uses the term 'blind' when she talks to Shuang about the rest of the world, but the imperative nature of their chameleon skin is never far from her voice. Another danger lurks beyond revealing their real faces to the world, and that is this: If they can see these strange, other worldly things, it stands to reason that those things can also see them. 'Don't look for answers,' Mama tells him silently, every time she squeezes his hand and keeps her gaze fixed straight ahead, ignoring whatever bizarre shade has fallen into their path. Blend in to both worlds, invisible as the weave in the finest of silks. 'Don't go chasing ghosts.')
Shuang bit firmly into the rest of his lollipop, letting the crack reverberate across his mental landscape. He truly had broken his promise to Mama when he'd revealed himself to Ming, but the loneliness had been more intense and sweltering than the worst of the summer heat. He'd been almost sure he would choke on it, falling and gasping like one of Mama's patients. When Baba brought them to Hua She Street, there had been little black flecks in front of his eyes, hungry to eat up the world. He'd dragged his feet even as Baba fussed at him, pinned desperately between pity and hate for this man, for his father, who was blind. That word kept coming back to him, circling low, even though Mama had scolded him for using it. There was something in Hua She Street, in the buildings and wires and even the cracks of the sidewalks, humming like a river underground. The place was restless, it was thin, but Baba walked around, just one more fool who couldn't see the sign that said 'Watch for Weak Ice'.
"There's something different here, isn't there?" Ming's soft voice carried with odd clarity as the traffic of the city faded behind them. Shuang looked up at her, startled for a moment. Several times, early in their friendship, they'd practiced thinking very loudly at each other, trying to see if they would hear each other's minds. Not a single one of those imprecise experiments had met with success, and yet Shuang was sometimes sure in his own bones that she could hear him, somehow. Ming fiddled with her barrette, as though aware of the slip, but she held his gaze firmly.
"Hua She Street is..." Words failed him, so he simply gripped his temples and said, "Yes."
"It's like..." she was struggling equally, but the tilt of her chin revealed a stubbornness beyond her age. "Like when chalk squeaks against the board at school. That sound."
"Yes!" This time, with more fervor. They turned onto the street in question, turning their small faces up towards the tall buildings all around. The deepening night made cast every window black, eyes drugged by fearful but stupid dreams. "Mama says--" Shuang broke off, unable to stop the present tense from passing his lips. He closed his eyes for a moment, angry at himself for not remembering, and but the inside of his cheek for punishment. It would be a year soon, very soon, why couldn't he get something so simple right? "Mama said that sometimes things soak in. Feelings and... people, too. I guess."
(He's with her at the hospital-- but she's still working, healthy and alive. When they walk past a certain set a of double doors, a wet chill slithers over him, a smell like sulfur and the texture of many screams. He follows the rules-- he looks straight ahead and presses close to her side. Later, Mama tells him she doesn't like that wing either. It used to be the psychiatric ward, she says and, though 'psychiatric' is a difficult word for him, Shuang understands from her touch that this means 'head-sick' instead of 'body-sick'. He clasps his hands behind her neck when she leans down to tuck him in, and she lets him. Her short, sensible bob makes a little curtain and tickles his cheeks.
"I know it feels bad, but please don't worry," she whispers. "There are so many people who work hard at the hospital, cleaning up blood and vomit and urine, making sure everything is safe and clean. If they didn't, all that stuff would pile up and breed disease. The things you and I see are like that, only there's no one to come and mop them up.")
"Soaking in," Ming echoed thoughtfully. "Like when my paints bleed through the paper and make a mess." She stuck the lollipop in her mouth, finally taking a real bite and removing the rest with a loud 'pop'. "But Shuang, I never see any dead-things here."
The boy shrugged his shoulders. Personally, he couldn't understand why they should question good luck. If Hua She Street had been like the Tunnel, Shuang was pretty sure even the best tricks in the world wouldn't last forever. Eventually, he'd just start screaming, he'd be caught, and then...
'Poof! Bang! The End!' he thought dully. Probably, they'd send him to the Psychiatric Ward. In the Kingdom of the Blind, only crazy people could see.
"That American. Harkness." The word popped out of her mouth with the same unexpected candy sound. "Shuang... I did something maybe I shouldn't have." They were at Number Five now, just another in a long line of gray, senseless totems. Ming chewed the rest of the candy off her stick, pitching the remains into the nearby trash can. Copying the movement, Shuang waited her out. Just as it sometimes seemed that Ming could read his mind, he thought he was able to understand something in her silences. There was a genuine worry in her that lay between her words. "I looked at him."
"Oh," Shuang said. His friend was looking down at her shoes, as if embarrassed, and he thought he understood why. This was another one of Mama's tricks-- something Ming had not known about until he'd taught it to her himself. Mama called this type of looking an 'aura', which just meant the colors around a person. Unlike the ghosts and shadows they were unwillingly subjected to, seeing the colors that belonged to a living person was much more difficult. It took a lot of concentration and-- in Shuang's limited experience-- usually resulted in a pounding headache. All in all, Mama had concluded that the practice was a bit rude, and so used it only when science and her doctor-tools couldn't tell her why a patient was sick. Sometimes looking at the aura helped, sometimes not, but (as careful as Mama was) she was always determined to do everything she could to help. "Didn't that hurt?" he asked, far more concerned with Ming attempting such a thing by herself.
"I told you there were a lot of kids at Ms. Choi's," she mumbled. "It wasn't hard to take some headache pills out of the bathroom."
"Grown-ups are supposed to get the pills!" he admonished.
Now Ming was defiant, eyes almost ebony as they narrowed. "Do you want to know what I saw, or not?" They walked past the next three buildings in silence, before Shuang finally conceded.
"Fine. What color was this Harkness guy?"
"Colors," Ming corrected him, raising an eyebrow. Despite himself, Shuang was curious. Mama had been a bright peony red; Baba was a green that had deepened since her passing. Though he couldn't see his own color, Shuang knew his mother had chosen his name because he was a brilliant orange, like the sunrise. He'd never met anyone who was more than one color. Ming herself had an aura of peach-pink, with tiny darker flecks. This had been cause for concern when Shuang had first looked, but he'd long since concluded that sometimes auras did have different shades. After all, Baba's green was no where near as bright as it used to be. "Harkness was three different colors."
"Why did you even look?" he asked, mouth tasting bitter.
"He was a stranger. A foreigner," she reasoned, obviously trying to keep her tone light. The heaviness lay inside her pause. "Everyone had so much to say about him, I just wanted to know... if he was okay."
"You can't tell if someone is bad by looking at their color!" Even as he said it, Shuang wasn't really sure it was true. She must have known this, dark eyes measuring him, but she ignored it.
"Inside, close to his body, there was a thick bit of sky blue," Ming moved her small hands to illustrate. Shuang nodded, wondering dimly why it felt like there was salt on his tongue. "Then, there was a thinner bit of gold. And then..." Nervously, she glanced up at their own building, growing closer with each step. "Around the outside, it was all black."
"I don't know what that means, Ming." He looked up at her honestly, willing her to understand. In the books and the movies, there was always a secret letter or a box or treasure chest-- something left behind when that precious person died, telling you what to do. There was a wise old wizard, or monk, or sage, who came to show you how to use your powers the right way. But Mama had died, swiftly, unexpectedly, leaving only the memory of her touch. A 'brain aneurism', the doctors reported, which was just another way of saying that her special seeing mind had played one final, horrible trick. Such a nasty joke, a hole in the tightrope's safety net! One wrong step and she really did fall,
(he was too small to catch her)
an ashen thing against the white kitchen tile. A powerful feeling welled in Shuang's gut. This very second, he wanted to narrow his eyes and look at Ming hard, look at her until his head ached and her colors unfolded from her body like the halos painted around angels. He'd tell her to do the same, return the favor; after everything, the stupid frightening aliens and the weird adults, they would look under each other's skin and really know everything was okay.
"I'm sorry?" For all her small advantages in height and age, Ming looked distressingly vulnerable to him now. She stopped him as they approached the gate of Hua She Street 10, putting small hands on his shoulders.
His throat clicked several times. "It's okay. Maybe it's good that you looked-- I don't think regular people are supposed to have more than one color."
"Good." Overcome with relief, Ming darted forward and kissed him on the cheek. She smelled of concern and strawberry shampoo, with just a little cherry-flavored candy.
"Don't be gross!" Shuang whined, wiping at the spot. "I don't want your girl germs!" He rolled his eyes at her again, very obviously this time.
"If I had any, you'd be able to see them," she returned with a fake pout. Then, she pushed open the familiar gate and they slipped through in turn. Ignored in the pocket of Shuang's soccer shorts, his little waterproof watch read 8:39 pm.
Later, when he had time to think about it, Shuang would find little bits of guilt clinging to his mouth and hands. He'd feel sorry for shouting at Ming, long after she'd forgiven him, long after they both realized mere human words didn't have the power their youthful minds had perceived. Here and now, in the moments of just-after-nine in the courtyard of Hua She Street 10, that insight was as alien to him as the coastline of another country. He slipped through the gate right behind his friend, coming into the wide 'U' formed by the three crumbling apartment buildings. Glancing up towards his own floor first, Shuang actually didn't see it right away. Instead, he heard the soft intake of breath beside him, so hurt he thought Ming might be in physical pain. He never looked at her, though-- his eye was drawn to the brilliance in the center of the courtyard, blotting out the single, bent tree.
"Oh, Ming, why did you say that, before?" he cried, gritting his teeth. She could have punched him in the face, and it would have hurt less. "Why did you say we never see dead-things here!? The gods heard you! You made it come true!"
"S-s-sorryy.." she moaned around the fist she'd shoved in her own mouth. He'd grabbed at her-- felt that she was actually afraid of him in that moment-- but, despite his angry words, he was honestly clinging to her for security.
The light was really just a dim glow but, at first, it still felt too bright for the eye to discern any detail. It was tall, like the corona of color around a living human male, but there was nothing inside of it. The children watched, barely breathing, waiting for the the shape to gain power and pull in on itself in the fashion of dead-things. It did neither. The glow never changed-- Shuang didn't even think he blinked once-- something appeared inside it, whole and complete. In all his short life, the young boy had always sensed a missing quality what he used his other sight, the same prickling absence that crept into the radio between stations, or the tired projections from a videotape used one too many times. This was very different, as if the fullness of the image had been there all along, obscured somehow.
"Oh," Ming was saying beside him. "Oh."
Inside the halo of deep-ocean blue, was a man. A living man, the children would have thought had they not seen the whole thing, for they were sure dead-things had no colors of their own. He was foreign, which made it difficult guess how old he was, but Shuang thought he was younger than Baba, perhaps college-young. The apparition was dressed well, in a white dress shirt with dark vest and slacks, but not quite like a businessman. To the boy, he looked as if he'd stepped from one the period movies his Mama had been so fond of. The man stood there, hands folded together, looking downward, or perhaps inward.
"Is he lost?" Ming asked quietly. She was gripping Shuang back, so hard he could feel her tiny nails, but curiosity bled everywhere in her small voice. "He looks sad."
"Maybe he belongs to that American," Shuang reasoned, biting his lip. It seemed to him that the Blue Ghost-- if that's what it was-- was more confused than sad. A traveler who'd turned up on the entirely wrong shore, discovering that the map had been upside down, or backwards, or not the right map at all. "Maybe that Harkness killed this man, and now he's being followed by the ghost." That happened sometimes in movies, but he'd never heard of it in real life. Before Shuang realized it, Ming slipped out from under his hands and stepped fully into the courtyard. Her gaze flickered to each building, until she was certain they were alone.
"Daaih lou!" the girl whisper-shouted, as loudly as she dared. Shuang was at her side in an instant. "Are you lost?"
"Chin sin!" he hissed at her. "Don't talk to him! We're never supposed to talk to any of them!"
"But--" It was too late; the night air had carried Ming's voice into the borderlands, and the ghost looked up at them both. Those eyes-- a gray that was blue that was silver-- seemed to register their presence even as the gaze searched for something (someone?) else. In that moment, Shuang smelled sulfur and cedar, heard the rhythm of a distant bay and agony of those hungry hungry whispers from his alien dreams.
Then, just as quickly, there was nothing in the courtyard save the two children and the ghost-pale, crooked tree.
Yauh mouh gaau cho a!- "No way!" Disbelief to the universe in general.
Daaih louh- lit, Elder brother. Also used as respect for a male aquaintance younger than one's father.
Chin sin- 'You're crazy!'. Slang.
Back to Jack and Ianto next week, my hand to God. ^_^;;; Again, I'm sorry about the OCs, but I needed an outside POV for our boys. I wish this story had told me it planned on having a plot. Honestly! *winks*
Feedback keeps the Daleks and Cybermen dancing their conga, a concept so disturbing it frightens even The Master. It also makes Meredith do her own little chair dance, which might actually be scarier. ^_~ Seriously, you guys know how much I love this stuff. Feedback = Godiva Chocolates. It tastes the same, I swear!