The restaurant is still between hours this early in the evenings. In the kitchen, Híuhàh can hear the clatter of cookware as the dinner staff comes on shift. Her father lounges in one of the chairs, pawing his tiles with barely-disguised irritation, while her brothers sit across from him and try not to look bored as each hand passes and he slowly gets more irritated at their amateurish plays. One of their subordinates sits uneasily to the north. Soon he will win the current hand and end the game prematurely out of frustration, at which point her brothers will leave. She doesn't need to be a Watcher to see it; it's what he has always done.
She never plays mahjong with her father. He never offers and she knows better than to ask. She would find it as boring as her brothers.
She sits against the wall of the band area, her mind drifting away while she keeps her pen light against the paper. When she doesn't have anything to look for, if she goes outside herself, it's easier to see. She knows there's something out there.
There has to be.
She's strong. Stronger than any of the other Watchers in Hong Kong. That's how she knows something is out there, even if nothing's spilling out from her open head onto the page. Nothing yet.
Slowly, her hand begins to move, filling in the shape of a girl.
Time stops. Time starts.
She wakes up surrounded by towers. No, boxes. With ... tigers? Her eyes won't focus. There's a blurry shaft of light off to one side that must be a stairwell; she can hear the chatter of satisfied customers and the plink-drag of chopsticks on dinner plates coming from its general direction.
She rolls onto her side and pushes herself up halfway off the still-warm floor. The world lurches and wobbles in such a way that she knows getting up the rest of the way would be a terrible idea. She does it anyway, groping around on the floor for her purse and the notebook she keeps in it - if she fell, it definitely wouldn't have stayed in her pocket - eyes narrowed and lips pressed tight.
She needs to see what led her here.
"It's to your left," a man's voice says, and she looks up, following the direction of the voice into the actinic glare of the clear-windowed refrigerator, her eyes taking a moment to adjust to the light. There's an old man sitting beside the unit, just outside the light, his hands hanging loosely off his knees. She can see the black stains on his long fingernails from years of tobacco use. He leans forward and the light curls into the lines of a face permanently drooped by a sardonic hmph.
"Ugggh." She bats a dismissive hand in his direction, sneering, before clutching her head. She squeezes her eyes shut and grimaces. "What do you want, old man?" Insults to her dignity are less important than finding out what happened, so she ignores the impulse to pretend she doesn't care about where her purse is after all and shifts to look around on her left.
He doesn't answer her, but that's fine, she isn't interested in hearing him speak anyway. Her fingers scrabble over the purse clasp before she yanks it open, shoving her hand inside and pulling out her composition book with a sharp jerk - and as she pulls it out her eyes land on the shine of a snub-nosed Glock. Her head flinches up, a hiss spitting out between suddenly-clenched teeth, and she stares at the long-faced man with the stained fingernails through narrowed eyes. "What did you do to me?" she says, her heels scraping and scuffing against the floor as she stumble-scoots backwards to close her fingers around the gun, her skin prickling with ice-water nausea. She fumbles with the strap on her notebook, eyes wavering down to smooth out the motion of her fingers only once before snapping back up to fix on his impassive expression.
He treats the gun with the same disinterested affect and amusement he seems content to treat the rest of her with; it makes her want to shoot him just to wipe the contempt off his face. "I was keeping an agreement," he says, his shoulders shifting underneath the shapeless layers of his clothing in what could be a shrug or just him resettling on the uncomfortable-looking chair. "My name is Danny Wóh Zéung. What's yours?"
"You're a Wiper," she says, confirming aloud what she already suspected - she should have realized it earlier, from the angry, irritated color of his fingertips and the stains on his nails. It wasn't just tobacco that did that to fingers - touching other people's minds would leave the skin dirtied and aggravated, too. She's seen it before. Her hand shakes with barely-contained fury and fear; she shoves the gun at him as if she could force the answers out of him just by impressing on him that it exists. "How many days did you steal from my memory? What did you take from me?"
He looks down at his hands, turning them palm-up, and cants his head apologetically. "I only took what you needed to lose."
"What I needed -?" The lines of her face deepen violently with a scowl. "I didn't ask for this!" Rage makes her hand jitter as her finger closes around the trigger, and her shot goes wide to the left, punching a hole through the plastic glass of the refrigerator window and the pressurized cans behind. The cans explode with a cumulative bang that rivals the gunshot in deafening impact, spattering the inside of the fridge and obscuring the contents within, and down below, through the ringing in her ears, she can hear the crash of plates and the shrieks of frightened customers and waitstaff alike.
Wóh Zéung ducks away from the gunshot, rocking his chair to the right with a scraping groan, and he uses the momentum of the chair resettling to give himself an extra burst of speed as he bolts past the refrigerator and deeper into the second-floor storage area. She fires after him, blowing another hole in another refrigerator window; more cans explode, popping and hissing as foam bubbles around and down the jagged hole left in the clear plastic, smearing the floor with nauseous brown striations where the light falls across it, and she hurls herself to her feet to follow.
There is only one way out through the back, but he seems much faster than she expected a man his age to be; she chases him through the second floor and down a back stairwell before she realizes he's already gone.
Screaming silently, Híuhàh plunges into the crowd and away from the wreckage of a life she doesn't want to leave behind.
The restaurant is closed. Híuhàh bangs her fists against the door in frustration, but she already knows it's useless. No one's inside. They won't open again for hours, and if any of her family were in there the lights would be on; she would see them passing tiles.
She has no idea where any of them could be. Four times now she's opened her notebook to an empty page to draw their faces and come up blank - she could sketch her father's face a dozen times and capture the stony lines of his perpetual scowl perfectly each time, but there's no meaning to it if she can't feel the movement of his life through the motion of the pen. The final time she draws her father, she draws the droopy-faced man standing alone in front of the restaurant instead. The stark difference between her father's lifeless visage and the shuffling, unhurried vitality of the Wiper she wants to kill feels like her body is a painted canvas and her hands the talons that would rip it to shreds. As she stares down at his sagging shoulders, trying to contain her disbelief and rage, she can see herself through the lines of his future. She can see herself dead, face down and cold, with strangers walking past.
Híuhàh hasn't opened her notebook to draw in since. Let the visions build up inside her heart till they burst; she doesn't care how the future ends. They've already stolen her life from her anyway.
She slides down against the restaurant door, her face contorted with so many thoughts of pain she feels like an opera mask come to life. She doesn't know how they died. All her life, since she was old enough to understand these things - since the first time she reached to pick up a gun from the kitchen table and her father slammed his hand down so hard on top of hers he nearly broke her small fingers over the flat planes of the barrel - she understood that someday she might have to face their deaths, but she never dreamed that she would face it twice over and that she would have to face it knowing she'll never remember what it felt like the first time.
A pair of shambling footsteps separates from the sound of passersby, drawing near with an unhurried, aimless gait. Híuhàh's hands curl around the edge of her notebook like bird talons.
"Her name is Cassie," Wóh Zéung says as he leans over her crumpled form in front of the restaurant. "The girl you drew."
She throws the notebook in his face. His expression does not change as it falls into his hands, falling open at the middle where two pages were torn from the binding. He closes it swiftly, before either of them can see the drawings to either side of the missing pages, but it doesn't matter. None of the drawings mean anything to her now. She can't see the connections. They're lines on a page - pretty lines on a page. "So you dig through other people's drawings like you dig through other people's memories, is that what you do? Go away, I want to kill you. Are you stupid? Why would you want to stay here and talk to someone who wants to kill you?"
"Because some debts must be paid," he says. She wants to scoff at him, but his next words still her tongue. "I knew your grandmother."
"Everyone knew Grandmother, dead man," she spits. "That's a terrible reason to die at the hands of her granddaughter." Her fingers curl against the door as she shoves herself to her feet. Híuhàh glances at his hands, at the book he still holds closed in his hands - she smacks it from his clutches, her nails digging into the vinyl cover and pulling it close. "But if that's all it takes, I will gladly collect your worthless debt."
"She was a friend," he says, unmoved by her show of violence.
Between his calm acceptance of her actions and his incomprehensible revelations about her grandmother, he leaves her struck dumb by emotional vertigo. Unhinged, her mind floods with imagery - impossible, dreamlike representations that her visions haven't taken the shape of since her childhood, when the surface impressions were still too strong for her childish mind to understand. She can feel herself at the edge of a cliff face, the sea roaring below and the wind sluicing her hair; the water will kill her as easily as the rocks, but a wall looms behind her, barring her way back. The interpretation is obvious - wherever this leads, it will lead her to her end. She saw it already, after all: her body growing cold on an unfamiliar street. She shakes her head to clear the ridiculous images from her mind and shoves at him, snarling with pleasure when he has to catch himself against the wall. "I don't care," she says. "My family is dead, and you're here trying to make me feel better about your responsibility for it by shitting on their memory - hamh gāa cháan!" Her body shakes in place; it takes more effort than she cares to think about to jerk her legs into motion and walk away from his half-lidded, impenetrable expression, and as she stomps off in her clacking heels, she turns her head sharply over her shoulder to add, in English, "Why don't you go fuck yourself, while you're at it!"
She doesn't need to listen to him.
He follows, keeping pace, but he makes no move to stop her. "You want to kill me," he says. His head rolls loosely on his shoulders in half a shrug. "That's fine. But I owe your grandmother this." He pulls an envelope, mildewed with age and slightly worn from folding and carrying, out of the folds of his jacket, and passes it across to her.
Her name is on the front in her grandmother's handwriting, 符晓霞 written in loose strokes and Charity Fu Xiaoxia in cramped English underneath it: her real name -the one used by her family - not the "Pop" name she inherited from her father's organized crime contacts - the one she uses everywhere else. The one everyone outside her family knows, and fears, her by. The paper rattles in her fingers as her hand shakes. Her eyes feel like mirrors. She looks up into Wóh Zéung's downcast face and sees her own face overlaid over his before the vision grabs hold; reality blurs like smeared ink and she collapses against the wall, just barely keeping from falling to the ground.
The letter falls from her fingers. Wóh Zéung's hands dart out to catch it. He cradles it in his cupped palms and sets it beside her. She barely notices him, so emotionally raw from the mundane revelations her mind only dimly understands that she can't push these new, psychically-inflicted ones down fast enough to keep them from overwhelming her - her fingers fumble for the notebook, her hand closes around the pen in her jacket pocket, she flips to an open page and begins to draw. The letter is in her hand, the torn envelope beneath it. She picks the lock of an apartment and steps into the dark, gun silhouetted in the crack of the door as it closes; she already knows where the apartment is as she draws it. A blond man nervously picks up a package at the desk of a different apartment complex. A Division man, one she recognizes from pictures a Sī agent showed her father - pictures she drew before seeing them herself; it was a test her father set for her, years ago - kills himself on an airplane and she sees that too. Wóh Zéung sits loose and bleeding against a wall with bloody footsteps leading away; she draws his eyes empty, and then, finally, she draws a girl.
Wóh Zéung's long nail breaks the chain of images, plunging into the shape of the future and tapping the girl's face sharply. "Her name is Cassie - her mother knew your grandmother. Alice Fùh was a strong woman, but she did not work alone in this. I knew them both." He locks eyes with her and says, "What I owed her mother is not what I owe your grandmother."
She scoffs at him in disdain, but she can't keep herself from shaking as she says, "So is that why you took my memories?"
He looks down at the girl in the notebook and the lines of his face grow sharper as they move under the lights. "You cannot track someone if they do not know what you track them for," he says. "Yes? That is what Watchers do." He taps the picture again. "I protected her, for her mother - and you, for your grandmother."
Híuhàh stares at him like she wishes he would grow an extra head so she could punch him in it. "How is stealing my life 'protection' to you?" she hisses, her eyes wide, the anger sharpening her inflections to dagger's-edge thinness.
"When facing Watchers, the less one can remember they did, the less likely they are to attract a Watcher's attention, mm?" Wóh Zéung bobs his head in a nod, raising his eyebrows with the question. "There are actions you would have taken, otherwise. Knowing what you knew - Division would want you, to stop you. You no longer know it, and are safe to -" He closes his mouth, looking up at the closed restaurant door. A tension she didn't even notice he had in his shoulders unwinds, and he meets her eyes levelly. "Alice plays long games, and she trusts her family. Read your letter." He rustles to his feet, brushing his hands against his - knobby even in those shapeless pants he wears - knees and turning his back to her with a slow, lolling wave.
She shoots him in the knee, watching with grim satisfaction as he crumples against the restaurant wall, and takes three deep breaths before speaking. "That was for taking my memory of my family," she says, her voice more even-tempered than she feels. She steps over one outstretched knee and presses the gun against his temple. Wóh Zéung looks up at her and grimaces, one eye squinting from the pain; she pulls the gun away and puts it back in her purse. "Thank you for Grandmother's letter. Now you get to choose how you die. If you die," she adds, with a sweetly insincere smile.
He gives her a slow, sardonic smile in return, and raises one hand to the side of his head, then the other. "I'm sure I will forget your kindness when we meet again," he says, and nods her on her way. "I have enough debts to pay already."
"Goodbye, old man," she says without compassion, and walks away, leaving bloody footsteps that fade and dwindle as she goes.
Light fills the dim apartment briefly. She can hear the girl's steps on the worn, faded linoleum floor, and she can hear when they stop, too.
"Your name is Cassie," she says from the crevice for the apartment's bed, her English thick with mockery and the heat of conviction. "That's funny. You don't look like a Cassie." She keeps the Glock level, not looking up. She doesn't need to look up to know where Cassie is or to know that there's a gun in Cassie's hand, too, and it's pointed at her. She drew it enough times, earlier. "But that's not surprising. I don't look like a Charity, either."
Híuhàh closes her notebook with one hand, leaving it in her lap as she looks up to meet a pair of wide, oval eyes. She lets her head roll to the side slightly, her gun hand steady. Her mouth curves in a slow smile. "Would you like to know a secret?"
Time stops. Time starts.