Shoulds, Whys, and Why-Nots


odessa_icon.gif wu-long_icon.gif

Scene Title Shoulds, Whys, and Why-Nots
Synopsis The puppy is dead.
Date November 28, 2008

Staten Island - Boat Graveyard

Exactly where land gives way to water at this point of the island's edge is uncertain - first because of the saltgrass growing everywhere, both on dry earth and in the shallows, giving the illusion of solidarity; second for the structures visible in the distance, drawing the eye away from the deceptive ground, suggesting its reach extends beyond its grasp. Even if the structures are still recognizable as ships, and nothing that ever belonged on land.

There are a multitude of them, abandoned hulls of salt-stained wood and rust-pitted steel, dying slow and ungraceful deaths as wind and water claim their dues. Some still appear to rest upright, braced upon the debris of older, lost relics below; others list to one side, canted at an odd angle like someone who just struggled to the surface in search of a desperate breath. There are no hands to pull these hulks from the water, no ropes to save them from drowning; each has been surrendered to the sea, left to the ravages of unmerciful time.

At low tide, some of the closer ships can be reached - not without getting soaked, but such is the price of daring. Never mind that the rotting metal and splintered wood are the stuff of nightmares for any germophobe, definite hazards to the unwary. The more distant ships are distant indeed, beyond the reach of all but the most bold - and are all but submerged besides.

After her disastrous little outing where she supposedly fell, compounded with the one where she ran into a man named Deckard, Odessa's been leaving notes on the fridge as to where she intends to wander, if she's wandering without an escort. The note today stated she would be headed to the boat graveyard out at Staten Island. The blonde stands in the tall saltgrass with her coat open, being blown about her by the stray breezes rolling off the water. Her voice, small and out of tune, carries on the wind as she sings. "After all the jacks are in their boxes and the clowns have all gone to bed, you can hear happiness staggering on down the street. Footprints dressed in red… And the wind whispers Mary…" Odessa brushes her bangs away from her face and stares out at the broken hulls and rotting shells of ships that were, a sort of serenity visibly settling over her.

The wind is going the wrong way for her to be able to hear the man stalking cat-footed up behind her, but Odessa occasionally has different senses about her. Wu-Long would be remiss to think that he's going to get within touching distance undetected. So he doesn't. His own coat drags the pointed tips of the grass like a net of dead black skin trawling for biological life to be uprooted, taken away, absorbed second-hand into the heavy folds. Above him, celestial bodies wink and the slow swing of sterile stars; in the distance, boats dying like vast carcasses, and somewhere in between, his dear charge. "Xiao jie," his voice echoes ahead of him. There is a square red tin in one hand, balanced against his hip; his hair swings loose at his nape.

"A broom is drearily sweeping up the broken pieces of yesterday's life," Odessa sings, oblivious to Wu-Long's approach. "Somewhere, a queen is weeping. Somewhere, a king has no wife. And the wind, it cries Mar-" At least, until he speaks. Odessa whirls about and fixes a stunned gaze on Wu-Long. "H- Hello." She offers a small smile and relaxes again, though not completely. She isn't sure what else to say, and so she simply waits. A man doesn't trek all the way out to Staten Island in search of a woman without having a purpose. Or so sound logic has led Doctor Knutson to believe.

A woman doesn't trek all the way out to Staten Island and expect the entire world to operate on sound logic, surely. Despite that Wu-Long is, indeed, sure, he doesn't fail to notice the querulous uncertainty that presents itself in Odessa's face and carriage when she recognizes him. And he is reading her, face and carriage, matching the patterns there with the ones he has seen before. Old people come across like the yellowed pages of an old novel, men like bawdy limericks and women, invariably, poems. She's less scared of him than she was before. He thinks it's better that she is.

"Wan an. Good evening," he translates afterward, automatically. "I came to see how you were doing. I hope you're hungry. I brought moon cakes. Yue gao." Translation reverses, even as he holds up the tin between two hands.

"Moon cakes?" Odessa's mouth twists into a lopsided grin, curiosity held in her eyes as she steps forward with the intent of closing the gap between them. "I've never had moon cakes. Heard of moon pies, though. Are they anything like those?" She looks up at the stars briefly, smile widening just for the moment before she returns her gaze to the man and his offering. "I am a little hungry," she assures him.

The side of the tin presses to his belly and Wu-Long curls his fingertips underneath the lid, prying it loose with a throaty rattle of metal on metal. Carefully, without upending all of it, he manages to fit lid underneath box, revealing its contents to the dim evening air. "I don't think so," he says without anything approaching certainty, craning his head to peer into the container's recesses. There are four of them, round pastries subtly trimmed and their lightly-glazed surfaces moulded to look like lotus flowers with some indeterminable Chinese script bubbled down the front. "These are surplus from the Mid-Autumn festival last month. There always is, every year.

"They're sweet," he says, raising the box up on both palms, as if plying a priestess for a favor. "Mostly. Very dense. But there's a core: an egg-yolk. Salty. My youngest, my daughter, she never liked to eat that; the flavor was too…" he searches the word out with wry humor. "Complex? She would pry it out with a fork and hold it like a ball in one hand. then eat the sweet part with her other."

"Egg yolk?" Odessa asks. "Is it soft? Like someone just cracked an egg into it? Or does it just…" She shakes her head and instead plucks up one of the pastries. "What does the lettering say?" She brings the confection up to nibble experimentally. She pauses and then licks her lips slowly, as if trying to decide what she thinks. Then, she takes a full bite.

The pastry sits in Odessa's thin fingers a little weighty for its size, dense with the mixture of sugar and flour. Wu-Long looks at the top of her pastry, squinting in the darkness, before shifting his eyes down to his own. Runs his fingers over the top, verifying to himself… "'Harmony,'" he identifies, after a moment. "He sheng." Squint turns to the crow-footed spark of laughter when his so-called puppy dispenses with sniffing around and promptly chomps down on it.

It is what he'd said: sweet. There's nothing readily herbal about the lotus seed paste that the moon cake is constructed from, a species that has more in common with vanilla than any savory bean staple though less cloying by far. With the size of the bite Odessa took, her dainty incisors do cut into the yolk in the center, the golden heart of a salted duck's egg, crisp and oddly powdery despite its moisture.

"They say tyrants have been overthrown by rebellions organized by passing mooncakes with paper messages hidden inside." Not terribly effective tyrants, he's given to understand. His head bobs low on its stem, glancing up from under the strandy shadows of his own face to see her face.

Odessa emits an appreciative 'mmm…' as she eats the little cake, though she gasps a surprised 'oh!' when she hits the egg in the centre, bringing her other hand up to catch a drip on her chin before it can slip to her coat. "That's different," she murmurs around the nearly-chewed mouthful before swallowing it down. "I think I like these moon cakes." She smirks at the tales of messages passed, "I suppose it's a similar concept to the file in the cake in stories of escaped prisoners."

Unilluminated, Odessa's pleasure comes through like its own little light. "A little," he agrees, nodding. "Though they say that whole cities partook in the eating of the cakes and reading of the messages. Rebellions of hundreds. You remind me of the other story," he changes the subject not entirely without transition. His eyes blink volcanic black in the vespertine darkness, barely highlit by the same distant moonlight that limns the moulding shipwrecks.

"There are many different versions, but most of them feature Chang'er. Sometimes she is the wife of an archer, other times she is a maiden granted or stripped of immortality, or a savior of her people at the cost of great sacrifice," of course. It wouldn't be a story without that. "In one, she is foolish or — too curious: she disobeys her elders and opens a box that contained salvation for herself and her husband, and takes it all.

"In every legend, in the end, Chang'er drinks an elixir of immortality and floats to the moon, but she never forgets the people.

"She is very lonely. I'm a terrible storyteller," he realizes without too much apparent in the way of self-condemnation. "That wasn't really a story at all." A scarred hand dips into the box; he takes one pastry for himself, starts at it with expedient bites, the corded muscle shifting underneath his jaw like some domesticated predator.

In the time it takes Wu-Long to relate his story, Odessa has finished her moon cake. "It's a good story," she intones reassuringly. "Is she sort of like Pandora, then? With the box? Or does the parallel not stand?" She plucks up a second cake, hoping to nibble while he shares more of his time with her.

It takes Wu-Long a moment to remember who Pandora is. Of course, in his understanding, Pandora would be more like Chang'er than the other way around. "I think they're similar," he remarks, at length, with the slow difficulty of one used to taking stories in the spoken medium, over a campfire, from which he'll take practical lessons on how to cope with spider bites and rookies, rather than a work of art to consider and learn existential lessons from. And Pandora's box was, he vaguely recalls, one of those. "But Chang'er's mistakes — or sacrifices," ironic, how easily those two were confused, "cost her her husband. Pandora's doomed the whole world, didn't it?" Vaguely, he recalls. Vaguely, vaguely.

Odessa nods her head twice. "Yeah… I see now." She smiles, looking faintly sheepish. A look she covers up by popping the last of the pastry into her mouth, a bite that was perhaps a bit larger than she should have taken, but it accomplishes its purpose. She's really too chipmunk-cheeked and busy chewing to look sheepish anymore.

Wu-Long's features draw subtly inward after a moment as he considers the words he had just spoken. Stares out across the dim wrinkle and smooth of water, its throaty rhythm audible over the distance of swaying grass. "I guess I do too," he acknowledges, awkwardly, though he isn't entirely sure he does. His wife has constituted his world for such a very, very long time. He eats his way through his own moon cake in companionable silence, tracking her progress until her chipmunk face appears emptied enough that she can speak around what remains. "How was your week? Besides this afternoon," he adds, with a reasonable facsimile of rue.

"It doesn't hurt to breathe anymore, so that's a vast improvement. I learned how to cover bruises up with makeup." Odessa tugs open her coat a bit so he can see the line of yellow-green bruises - some fading to a less severe shade of purple or blue - peeking above her boatneck sweater, faded into something more socially acceptable. See? "I, ahm… I tried to use the laundry machine, but I couldn't figure it out. So I just left my clothes in a heap and have my fingers crossed that Ethan likes me enough to wash them for me."

It's hard to see in the dark. Wu-Long leans close, squints, his breath and stray locks tickling her cheek like a crow's wing. His nose looks a bit like a bill as he cranes his head over, his features atypically angular for a Han Chinese, mostly because he isn't one. He sees. There. He could use a little more to look at, frankly, but he rocks back his heels about a quaver-beat after his speculation becomes conspicuous in and of itself.

"Someone should teach you how to use the laundry machine. You're smart enough to heal a sick body. Laundry can't be so difficult," he says, with a curl to his mouth that indicates, clearly, that he's aware of the irony. His smile fades the next moment. "I heard." About what had happened to her: the attack. "It is good you didn't let it get to you. At least," he gestures the tin generally at the world. "You aren't hiding."

"The last thing I want to do is hide," Odessa confirms. She pauses and gnaws on her lower lip a bit, releasing her grip on her coat. "I went… On… On a date?" It's meant to be a declarative statement rather than a question, but it comes out that way regardless. "This… is kind of like a date, isn't it? I mean, if we had planned it, it could have been a date?" She pouts faintly at her own inability to articulate the thoughts in her head properly.

A thumb goes up one side of Wu-Long's jaw, forefinger the other, a thoughtful V of fingers that looks comedic enough that he might be making fun. Maybe he is! A little, but only a little. "This would have been a date if we had planned it," he acknowledges. "Maybe not a very impressive one. Most of the women I have met prefer a date to involve better than well-preserved food. Sometimes, they like movies. I remember you like movies. Or at least one made you cry." Another twinkle of irony there, a monster's appreciation for the circularity of human pains and desires, ever the studies in contradiction. "I did not date very much. I was engaged at nineteen." These two sentences function as disclaimers, even as he proffers the box once again. If she wants another, or else he will close it. "Would you like to talk about it?" Nebulously defined though 'it' apparently is?

Odessa waves a hand in a politely dismissive fashion as the tin is offered to her again. "I couldn't possibly. Thank you, though. They were delicious." She smiles and even in the low light, the blush can be seen creeping into her cheeks. "I, ah… I have a favour I would like to ask. I mean, that is, if you're feeling indulgent, I guess."

Most foreigners can't take the egg yolk. Disgusting puns aside, Wu-Long understands it's a different sense of texture and taste; almond soup tends to take better than bird's nest soup, too, even before they are told that the latter is made out of the creatures' saliva and mixed with sugar crystals. He is dimly entertained by Odessa's ability to eat moon cakes.

Also by her effort to avoid the subject of her recentmost — very first — romantic outing. It makes sense: he wouldn't want to talk to himself about his hot date, either, if he actually knew him. One would as soon discuss swimming with a shark. He lids the tin, presses it shut with a palm splayed on top, and on the bottom. The answer ought to be, I have my orders. What emerges instead is, "Don't let the moon cakes fool you," cheap though they were. "I am." Feeling indulgent.

"I… I think I would like to try…" Odessa takes in a deep breath and closes her eyes, dark lashes resting against her cheeks as she slowly lets out the inhale. "I would like to try kissing someone." Her eyes open again and she takes in a short gasp of air, horrified now that she's spoken the words. "A- And you said that I was beautiful," she feels the need to qualify, "so, I thought-" She winces, and purses her lips in an attempt to keep something else stupid from tumbling out. Her eyes widen just a touch, fixed on Wu-Long's face, judging his reaction.

Wu-Long is characterized by a tendency to react to expected reactions by failing entirely to do so. Thus, the initial request, its processing, the round- and rabbit-eyed look that follows afterward meets no expression in particular, the man's features relegated to interest kindly without the softening, numinous quality of actual warmth. Inevitably, his silence feels longer than it actually is. Mostly because not even he is blind and deaf to the fact that saying something like, You thought right! would be the wrong thing. His brow furrows, slightly, as if confronting a particularly difficult mathematical problem in zhong xue.

He learned to do this back then, too. Steps forward, with a parting sway of salt grass to his left and to his right, and enfolds her waist with a leather-clad arm. Outer-wear reduces their differences and disparities, in a sense: her heels bring her closer to his height, the long lines of their coats proposes to the indiscriminatory onlooker that they might, almost, even match. His face is suddenly very near. On the other hand, sharks do sate their curiosity this way, too: with their mouths.

Stupid, stupid, stupid! The self loathing pours through Odessa's mind torrentially. She tries to keep the self-hate out of her expression, which isn't terribly difficult when apprehension is still the pervasive emotion. But when he does finally react - or rather, simply, act - she goes very stiff and very still, breath having left her in the almost horrific anticipation of it. She actually flinches as he leans in, not a terribly attractive expression, but what does one expect from a woman scared to death of intimacy?

Courage, mostly. Something that Wu-Long can appreciate and respect, despite its firm rooting in human sentimentality. If there were more moon to see by, she would be able to see the faint scar underneath his eye, rifting his cheek, the predatorial dilation of pupils consuming every miniscule packet of light reflected off her own equally shadowed face, in a frame as blonde as madeira in the glass. He finds this an odd request. Mostly, because he understands it. Or think so. The whys, the why-nots, compelled by something lower, if not deeper, than the trite aphorisms of virtue or profanity that comfort most who try to get close to one another. He does not think of his wife.

The kiss is just that, when it does descend to her. A kiss, press, touch, nearer, slow if not sedentary, acquiescence requested without specific egress demanded. She has nice lips. He's reminded of the segments of a clementine and the embarrassment of a Catholic schoolgirl who saw him waiting on a street curb once, pursed, tender, and somewhat out of reach. A sibilant wind tells him when to stop, and he lets go with his arm, first, mouth second. There: for her to try.

In Wu-Long's grasp, Odessa softens slowly, begins to yield to him. Her chest rises and hitches there with the breath held. She's understandably awkward, uncertain of which way to tilt her head or how she's supposed to handle all the subtle nuances. Action and reaction, all vague and unfamiliar notions. But, finally, reluctant instinct takes hold and the girl's reaching for his arm to hold him there before he can disengage fully, though she hasn't the courage to do more than that.

Fortunately, she doesn't need to. Parting is brief when parting comes, and then he's back again. He allows himself to be held. It is not exactly the easiest thing in the world: it's been a long time since he made himself be still with anyone or, perhaps more accurately, that someone permitted themselves to be still with him. He might consider the kiss an overall success at some point between the small hand on his sleeve and the sticky trace of salt he picks up, residue from a snack that wasn't his own. The insistently whispering wind is, thus, left to fuck off and mind its own business until Odessa's curiosity is satisfied on her own terms.

Only once more does she come up for air before she's suddenly, abruptly pulling away from the man and putting three steps distance between them. Her face is flushed a shade of scarlet visible even in the pale moonlight. Kissing was unfamiliar enough, but the stirring in her chest and in her belly are something almost uncomfortable. She certainly doesn't understand them. "I- I'm sorry. That was terrible of me. I- Forgive me." She doesn't specify, but it's likely she's apologising for all but running away from the kiss, rather than for the kiss itself.

Or she could run away. That works too. And is altogether more familiar to Wu-Long than the other thing, frankly. For one harrowing instant, Wu-Long's arm constricted — started up and out again, to grab her back and pull her in. The motion is aborted before it really begins, hidden in a ginger flex of his burned shoulder, his fingers fisted, a dark eye shifted down to glance at the afflicted body part. As if that matters.

"No," he contradicts, glancing back, making eye-contact as if to soften the general unkindness of telling somebody that they've got it quite wrong. "That was pretty good, considering everything." He thinks better than to itemize the list that substantiates everything. He understands, though. What she really means, or is trying to say. Nods his head, assent. The wind snatches scrawls his cheek with a stray curl. There is nothing to forgive.

"It's cold," he says, at length. He means: they could go home.

"I don't feel cold," Odessa says quietly, wrapping her arms about her body for other reasons entirely unrelated to warmth. "I don't know what I'm feeling." Her gaze isn't so much on Wu-Long now as it is through the man to some unfocused and undetermined point past him. "I feel like I've got this knot in my stomach. But- But it's not a stomach cramp or… It's just kind of like there's this…" She flounders for words, rolling her eyes toward the sky for inspiration.

The sky winks back at her, bright with conspiracy. No better time than at night, it tells her, when mice and monsters alike are guarded in its indiscriminate embrace. At least half the world. Some things are easier to see without sight. It's the nature of comprehension. To perceive anything necessarily excludes perceiving something else. And Wu-Long won't see her the same way again.

Not that that's such a great and terrible loss. He has never particularly liked puppies. He had told her, once: his first kill was a dog. It had failed entirely to occur to him that dogs didn't count, and by that same token, she now does. Somehow, this doesn't preclude his duties; the ones he'd chosen not to mention again just now. "Is it painful?" he asks the woman, the logical thing to check, despite that she is the doctor between the two of them. He places his hands in his pockets. Not all of his ignorance is pretense.

"No," Odessa whispers. "Pain would make sense. Pain brought on by apprehension or anxiety," she diagnosis. "But this is like there's just… something that needs to… be released? Am I making any sense?" Her gaze is dark in the starlight, wide and hopelessly lost as it once again comes to settle on the man.

She is, insofar as Wu-Long's sensory memory holds recollections near to it. He answers truthfully first: "Yes." Different kinds of sense. Allows a lie of omission to fall somewhere between one response and the next, a silence he spares for her intellectual analysis and his own brief ruminations. Things get a little bit harder every year. Jumping is harsher to his knees, falling asleep slower, awakening more abrupt; and every year, he retreats for longer into the disembodiment of shadow. Naturally, professionalism would be the next casualty on the list. "I'm sure it will come to you as you remember what you know," he says, slow from something other than his ordinary accent. The dessert tin clanks against his jacket zipper, shifting in his grip. "I should take you home. Ethan will be wondering. I added a note to yours." On the refrigerator.

She wants to ask if this strange feeling is some sort of side effect from his ability. That would tie things up in one neat little package. Instead, Odessa lets the stray thought stray further from her mind. "Oh, Ethan," she murmurs under her breath. Shit. "I'm sorry," she says again. "I shouldn't have asked you to… But thank you." Most girls wait for love, or at least a very deep crush. Perhaps Odessa's experiencing the latter, but she wouldn't admit to that. Finally, she nods numbly. "I'm sure Ethan's terribly worried. Is it…" A faint smirk tugs the corners of Odessa's mouth upward finally, "Is it faster to go your way?"

"Yes." Exhausting, also. Fortunately, they're laying low these next few. Wu-Long can afford to pass out awhile; Ethan's sort of used to his apartment being Grand Central. He smiles with his eyes before he remembers to tuck the corners of his mouth up, scimitar-sharp. Grass and soil grind underfoot as he closes half the distance between them and he offers her one hand, palm-up, his calluses dark relief against skin still tawny from sailing, an invitation familiar by now if anything else about him is. "You might be in the wrong industry to be wondering about shoulds," he proposes, dryly. Genocide. It counts.

The confusion is there, but Odessa lets it pass. She smiles faintly, shy even after sharing her first kiss with the man, and clasps his hand tightly. Her heart hammers in her chest, anticipatory of the sensation to follow. Strange as it is, for the moment, Odessa will argue that it's the only way to travel.

November 28th: The Wrong Fed

Previously in this storyline…

Next in this storyline…

November 28th: Nightmares and Confessions
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