When You're Gone


munin_icon.gif wu-long_icon.gif

Scene Title When You're Gone
Synopsis An equitable transaction at a sentimental hour of night.
Date November 25, 2008

Confucius Plaza — Wu-Long's Apartment

A downright Spartan apartment building. Neat, but not immaculate, minimalistically furnished— give or take a few militarily-oriented surprises tucked into concealed nooks or replastered behind furniture, and impersonally decorated.

A small plastic Buddha atop a shelf and generic prints of Chinese women on bridges and fat children are framed on the walls. A carved wood tube of wood sits by the entranceway, receptacle for umbrellas; the dining table, knee-height and surrounded by seating cushions, bears a rickety glass Lazy Susan. A faded Xerox of a faded photograph sits on what serves as a mantelpiece, just right of the television, a portrait of a solemn, elderly Chinese couple. There is a plate of fruit before it, peaches, pears or apples swapped out before rot sets in every three days.

You'll find beer in the refrigerator and three small bedrooms in the back.

Munin was invited. Requested, rather; Wu-Long isn't one to entertain guests, under few illusions about the desirability of his company or the discomfort it tends to cause those who know him and aren't like him. It's dark now, after dinner-time and before the hour of the next meal that the frequently nocturnal Vanguard would have pencilled, by logic, into the night's schedule. On the uppermost West corner of Confucius Plaza, his living room is a box of light. Which isn't as uncomfortable a habitat to him as one might ordinarily imagine.

He's sitting in the dining room, waiting, garbed in a dark green turtleneck and trousers the default black. Seated on a cushion, for lack of chairs. Two small porcelain bowls atop the table and two small knives laid out between them, a box of matches, a carton of eggs resting beside his elbow, one of its formed slots empty and the white ovoid resting in his hand with ineffable gentleness. His head is bowed, his eyes intent on the shell.

A request left undetailed allows for more freedom than a cordial invitation might. Munin, being the untethered little thing that she is, prefers it this way — there are no obligations, no unspoken commitments that Wu-Long will hold her accountable for. Like the smallest of the birds whose company she keeps, she comes and goes, flitting to and fro however she pleases as Vanguard's resident garden sparrow.

There's a knock at the door, knuckles rapping lightly against the wood in such a way it would be hard to mistake Wu-Long's visitor for anybody else. For one thing, he's expecting her. For another, it's her voice that rings out in the tentative pause that follows. "Hello?"

Egg returns to carton. And it's a complete dozen sitting on the table, visible when he unlocks the door, deadbolts and night-chain clicking and sliding in audible confirmation that its owner is every bit as timid and cautious as the next citizen of Manhattan's post-Bomb Chinatown tucked in after-dark. The light from inside comes out, stencilling his silhouette out for a brief instant before the man steps aside, ushering her in.

It takes Wu-Long a moment to remember to answer verbally. Generally, he prefers to speak in soupcons of information and the rapid motion of hands. "Hello, Eileen." His feet are bare, his hair tied up away from his nape. The apartment is warm enough to make the state comfortable. A fat smiling child in a swatch of red silk smiles down at her from the framed print beside the door, and the window watches her in a discreet shade of nocturnal blue, unfettered by blinds. "Thank you for coming. How was your day?"

There's a little more colour in Munin's cheeks than the last time Wu-Long saw her, but her pale eyes — more gray than green today — aren't quite as bright or vibrant as they usually are. It seems that Phase Two is taking its toll on everyone, whether or not they're playing an active part in Ethan's sanctioned killing spree. She steps inside the apartment, shrugging off her pea coat in favour of the heavy woolen cardigan she wears beneath it. Her ballet flats, too, come off at the door, shed to avoid tracking dirt across the carpet. "I've had better," she admits, voice soft, its tone as subdued as the young woman's overall demeanor. "But I suppose I've had worse, too. Is everything all right? I haven't seen you around Ethan's."

"He gave me my orders by telephone," Wu-Long answers. He takes her peacoat if she'll give it to him. "Things seem to be going according to the plan." There's a small closet beside the door, opposite the picture of the fat child. It will go in there, on a plastic hanger, not wire, be shuttered away behind a squeak of hinges. He'll lock the front door, then. Click, clack, squeak, oddly disjunct with the perfect silence of the strides he takes to rejoin her. He turns a palm upward and crooks his torso an inch, genially inviting her to the dining table. She's a lithe-limbed thing enough that he can't imagine she doesn't have the knees or back to deal with seating herself closer to the floor. "You look better. I'm glad to hear that you visited Ethan." It's good for the Englishman's morale, he's given to understand.

If the plan is spreading misery into the lives of everyone in New York City, then Wu-Long's right. Vanguard has been doing a bang-up job. This thought, however, like so many others, is one that Munin keeps to herself. Her bare feet make no sound — at least none that Wu-Long hear — on the carpet as she moves to take a seat at the table, carefully pulling out a chair just enough so she can sit herself upon it. "I don't think he's taking it so well." She doesn't specify what 'it' is, though there's something about the way she averts her gaze when she speaks that suggests she isn't taking it very well either.

If the plan is spreading misery into the lives of everyone in New York City, then Wu-Long's right. Vanguard has been doing a bang-up job. This thought, however, like so many others, is one that Munin keeps to herself. Her bare feet make no sound — at least none that Wu-Long hear — on the carpet as she moves to take a seat at the table, sinking to the floor and delicately folding her legs beneath her, hands resting upon one another in her lap. "I don't think he's taking it so well." She doesn't specify what 'it' is, though there's something about the way she averts her gaze when she speaks that suggests she isn't taking it very well either.

It's probably symptomatic of having a soul or something fancy like that. Wu-Long may have read about it in a book, once. Facetiousness aside, he recognizes this without pleasure, looking at her face from the changing angle as he settles himself on the table perpendicular to her. He has the urge to explain about his wife, about the lie he had detected on the phone, the nurse he had barely resisted the urge to interrogate in harsh tones and fully realizable threats. He restrains himself in a similar way now, despite that you'd have to be a blind man or stupid to know she knows what the latest phase of Kazimir's agenda wrought upon New York City, and isn't happy about it. He offers her tea. And then—

"I want to give you something. I hope you will do me a favor afterward, but that is less important." He says this because he isn't sure what to offer for the rest. A hug would be awkward. He takes up one of the eggs and then the Kraft knife beside it.

Under pressure of one broad, callused thumb, the thing emerges with one click of the plastic measuring notch. Both hands full, he bobs them at her, encouraging her to try with another egg, knife. "Don't tell the others," he says, for no particular reason, which might even be construed as humor, quiet. "It's an ancient Chinese secret, for sending messages in time of war, and my children enjoyed being able to do it for fun." The next instant, he wonders perhaps if that association might be either inadvertently insulting or, uh, disturbing, but she's kept the company of monsters for awhile.

The association, whether insulting or disturbing, causes Munin to cock her head in an almost birdlike manner. "Is it really?" she asks as she removes one of the eggs from the carton, rolling it between her palms. "Or are you just teasing me?" A faint smile pulls at her lips but never gets quite far enough to show any of her teeth. Without waiting for an answer, she shifts her weight, adjusting her slim body into the lotus position, legs crossed and locked closely together, the soles of her feet angled skyward. "All right," she murmurs lowly, not without humour herself, "I'm gullible." She looks down at the egg, then up again at Wu-Long, and cradles it in her left hand while picking up the other knife with her right. "How does it work?"

He scoots one of the little white-blue bowls toward her, to catch the mess — whether accidentally early or executed by intent — before he shows her how it works. Like so. No jokes! None: he smiles back and it isn't teasing. You cut a small hole into end. Carefully, don't let it shatter, take the time to scratch, scratch, scrape through the thin, immaculate white stuff of the shell, until you have a piece of shell laying, severed, on top of the embryonic fluid and bright bobbing yolk.

Carefully. Carefully. His fingers clasp the pristine curvature of the shell as he does it and he appears somewhat paranoid he'll make a mistake: that the strength of his fingers will tear through the egg's fragility despite all of his restraint and previous practice. That is probably his first mistake: worrying about it. Or whatever verb passes for worrying in a man with his tendencies.

Anyway, Wu-Long screws up egg one. It isn't very pretty. He winds up with gross all over his hand and a frown at his incompetence, cranes his head to see how she's doing. "I'm out of practice," is his excuse, in a tone that suspiciously resembles a mutter, wiping his hand on tissue produced from his pocket.

Holding her egg over the bowl, Munin uses the size of her hands and the nimbleness of her fingers to her advantage as she attempts to recreate Wu-Long's demonstration. She's perhaps a little too careful at first — she doesn't apply enough pressure for the blade to split through or even weaken the shell, and it takes her several tries before she succeeds, slicing through the egg's fragile exterior in a series of short but smooth circular motions after finally wearing it down. Pinching the fragment between her fingers, she peels it away and tips her hand, watching as the egg's contents spill sloppily into bowl and slosh against the sides. Not bad for her first time, but her execution, like everything else she does, is far from perfect; a thin crack runs lengthwise across the egg, too shallow to cause any serious damage, too obvious to pass for a natural variation in the shell.

Better than this mess Wu-Long managed to Swiss out of his own project, at any rate. At least it has holes? Egh. Fragments of calcium and gelatinous not-quite-chicken flop around, oily and bubbled, gracelessly together in the bottom of his bowl. Explicitly ignoring his own failure, he studies Eileen's success— perhaps only a relative term, but difficult to challenge by any system of measurement known to man or monster. The flaw is small.

He does not think it will impair the function, and generally, he can tell. "Hen hao," he says, approvingly, a grin flaring white-toothed across features still darker from sea than most in the city. The next moment, his eyes focus past the modified ovoid and find her face under the brightness of his home lights. "That's very good. Good enough for us to try with first." He reaches for the matches this time. A thin streak of egg white is drying on the back of his knuckles. He extricates one little phosphorus-tipped stick, casts the small box over to her edge of the table. "Go on," he says. "Take one.

"Do like this?" Grasping the wood between forefinger and thumb, he breaks it though only part-way. Shifts his grip down a fraction of an inch, and does so again, segmenting the match, so that it curls like a tiny cobra, reared up aggressive for a kiss.

The fact Wu-Long didn't light the match puzzles Munin, if only momentarily. She sets the egg down, resting it against the rim of the bowl so it won't roll away into trouble, and repeats after him. "Hen hao." It doesn't matter whether or not she knows what it means when she likes the way it sounds. She's simple that way. Again, she mimics Wu-Long's motions, and — unlike her success with the egg — she cleanly splintering through two good matches before achieving comparable results with a third. "How's that?"

The crows' feet deepen on either side of the man's face. It isn't that Wu-Long is being deliberately mysterious, he just spends little enough time with conducting verbiage in the world outside paramilitary operations that he occasionally forgets to grease the tracks of social interactions by putting explanations, reassurances, and words in here and there, a tendency exaggerated slightly by the fact that Munin makes so very few demands for normalcy. Which is probably more her damage than his. Not something to congratulate either of them over. "Wan mei. Perfect." He speaks first, then translates.

Picks up the match box between forefinger and thumb and invites her to rise with a directive angle of his hand, more of a soldier's gesture than a host's— but he is like that. "Come, come. We'll see if I remembered how to do this." Even as he rises, he takes her discarded egg shell. It is dwarfed by his fingers, callus-studded palm and scarred knuckles. As if noticing the disparity, he then glances at hers. "I don't think even the peonies have such small hands."

"Peonies haven't got hands at all," Munin points out mildly as she places both her hands on the floor and, carefully, climbs up onto her knees, then feet, slender limbs unfolding. "Just petals." There's a pause, and she wrinkles her nose, reconsidering. "Leaves? Stems?" Whichever. She watches Wu-Long, curious and intent enough, entirely willing to make an exception and drop the barriers separating her personal space from his. Normally, she wouldn't get quite so close, but they're alone, and his presence isn't just something that puts her at ease — it's something she finds comfort in. A small amount, true, but comfort all the same.

No hands. Leaves and stems, maybe. Wu-Long will buy that. "My English isn't the most fluent," he admits, with something that doesn't look anything like rue; as far as he's concerned, he had been right. Not even peonies have such small hands.

He takes them out past the seamless line that divides dining area into living area, which requires only perhaps— five strides, maybe six if you're her height instead of his. He glances down at her, at the things in his hands. Remembers far away and long ago: California, his boy with the ricebowl haircut, Mu-Qian perched expectantly on the porch, the baby beautiful but interchangeable in that blobby, agreeable way that infants are, all of them vivid the way the burning school would never be.

The associations are anchored in nothing in particular. Not in Eileen's demeanour, nor even, really, in this odd ritual. Wu-Long's eyes lid with a momentary fatigue. "Okay," he says, partly to himself. "We will light your match, and put it inside this egg. Tuck it in so it won't fall out, d—" he stops himself before telling her not to burn herself, eyes tightening again, briefly, with amusement. "And then the egg will learn to fly. They say it was one of the first hot air balloons in the history of mankind.

"If we can get the windows open in time, we can nudge it out into the city." Like a mad little soldier, the matchbox stands to attention in front of Eileen on the center of his hand, square-shouldered, the frictive side showing in a smart red stripe.

Munin picks up the matchbox, rotating it between her fingers a few times before, resolved, she flips it over and strikes the match against the stripe. The effect is immediate. Heralded by a hiss and a pop, a yellow tongue of flame engulfs the match's tip. The air around it tickles her fingers, gradually growing warmer and warmer as the fire begins eating its way down the stick. She's quick. Heeding Wu-Long's unspoken warning, she follows his advice, lips pursed tight in concentration, and maneuvers the glowing match into the egg's hollow interior while remaining mindful of her fingertips and the sensitive skin that covers them. "Ancient Chinese secret, huh?"

"Ancient," comes the reassurance, teasing, though not in the way that one would do a child. Wu-Long watches her fingers flit about, angle, flicker and reverse directions with the same cohesive agility that he's watched bird droves respond to threats not even he could see, firelight flaring between her fingers as if they were pinions silhouetted. He shifts his own hand, maneuvering his wrist away from the pip of carried flame. And then— look. Look!

Eileen's done it, the match is in and slowly, slowly but unmistakably buoyed it seems as much by the crude but tender care that went into its workmanship as well as the simple physics of hot air against cold, the ovoid tugs against Wu-Long's fingertips. Aglow. Plump belly lit orange from within, it seems to have acquired a heart, bright and hot, to replace that sterile, soupy viscous stuff that currently awaits the fate of an omelette, half a room away. No; the egg is above all that now. It's a message of war, a hot air balloon, a miniaturized sun. It's floating.

Wu-Long lets go. And looks, for a moment, dimly surprised that that worked, peering at it with a quizzical cast to his face, even as it struggles gradually through the empty air. He only moves to go backward, after a moment, reaching behind him to switch off the light. Plummets his apartment into darkness, except for the single ball of gradiated brightness, unassisted, picking Munin's thin face out in gold.

There's that smile again, only this time it lingers, illuminating her pale features in a way natural light can't. She reaches out as if to touch the egg, but she dares not so much as brush her breath against it. Instead, she lets her fingertips hang in the air above it, mesmerized. What this has to do with sending messages or times of war, she doesn't know, and she doesn't particularly care. It's fascinating enough in its own right.

"Thank you," she says, her voice soft and warm in the same way that the glow emanating from within the beacon is. "For sharing this with me." If gratitude could be measured, hers would fill the room.

Because it is very quiet, and dark, and still, Wu-Long can tell he feels something for that. Better than he had before. If there was anything more than the solitary egg disturbing the room with the color of its movements, he probably wouldn't have realized it all. He lets it sit for a moment that spans but a few seconds at best, looking at it the way one might a phantom limb and savoring in its tingle. The next moment, he steps forward, flipping the window latch with a sturdy slap.

Evening opens into the room without a whisper. Turning back, he — does dare touch the egg, a gentle bump of a forefinger, then another, guiding its infinitessimal light out into the city. Not that he particularly wishes to break it, and even less to be rid of it, but because he wouldn't want to see what her face did once the fire goes out. Once it falls. And it will, despite that he bought the sort of matches sailors take to sea.

"There are ten more," he tells the shadowed girl. Then, in the tone of admission, "Maybe less, if you let me near them. We could take them to the roof, if you like. Easier to see where they go." Wu-Long's voice catches on the last syllable, banking, braking with awkward delicacy, managing to stop himself before he makes a segue-less topic shift. He had the other thing to ask her.

Ten more. Munin mouths the words, silently echoing them, though no sound comes out. It's surreal, almost, the way the egg floats through the air and out into the night, swallowed whole by the vast expanse of star-speckled black that stretches across the sky. At the mention of the roof, she looks up at the ceiling, a bewildered look appearing on her face when she suddenly realizes that, no, of course she can't see it from where she's standing. Her gaze, shadowed by her lashes, shifts back to Wu-Long, and she offers him the smallest of nods in return.

Cat-footed, Wu-Long turns back toward the dining table. His ponytail shifts sable over his back as he angles a glance at her, brief, then away; his invitation as silent and unanimous as his assent. "I have a favor to ask. It's nothing…" awkwardly grasping for the word, constructing the grammar around his meaning, unsure which one is the scaffolding and which the substance. "Contingent." He did it wrong. He doesn't apologize.

That was the arrangement, wasn't it? Munin, not about to renege on her word, nods again, this time folding her arms across her chest, hands lightly grasping her elbows. Contingent is one of those words that, even as a native English speaker, she doesn't entirely understand what implications might be attached to it. "Anything."

It's but a small material sacrifice, and no arrangement in Wu-Long's understanding of the term. Then again, he's a deserter, so his understanding of contracts verbal or otherwise transactory may be different to that of others. He pauses halfway across the room. Not to equivocate, but to stretch an arm out to his side, a finger to point, indicate the small shrine atop the cheap plaster mantlepiece. The faded scrap of paper framed there. One old man and one old woman, pepper-haired and solemn, staring out over a plate of yellow starfruit. "When I'm gone, will you do that for me, a few times?" It hurts him far less than it would most of his countrymen, dying banished from his native earth, and without family to feed his ghosts and incinerate paper wealth for him ever afterward. He does, after all, make an unusually resilient ghost. Still, he asks.

Wu-Long's question is met with silence, though there's nothing even remotely stony about it. Munin wants to know what makes him think she'll be here after he's gone, if he knows something about Kazimir's plans that she doesn't. In spite of these nagging worries, these morbid thoughts, she says nothing at first. Her lips thin out into a contemplative line, and her small body seems to deflate, not in defeat, but in resignation. One of these days, she'll have to come to terms with the paths Wu-Long and the others have chosen, letting them run their natural courses — either to death or defeat, she isn't sure which, though she's certain it has to be one or the other, or both. "When you're gone," she agrees.

November 25th: Late

Previously in this storyline…

Next in this storyline…

November 25th: Their Weaknesses
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