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The Light Shines In

Chapter Text

The first time Zhang Yuan remembered smelling the strangely sweet scent of funeral incense was when his grandmother died. It had been a hot summer's day, the sun dazzling and the attendees sweating.

Zhang Yuan remembered looking up at his grandmother's casket as his parents bowed before it, the smoke from their incense spiralling up into the thick air. He remembered seeing a pale liquid-like substance billow up from the lid, coming directly out of the wood. It had been a thin tendril at first but within moments it had grown into a large, white, translucent mass. Zhang Yuan had stared, rooted to the spot until his mother pulled him away.

No one had else seemed to see it, no one but Zhang Yuan. He had been nine at the time.

--

"Is... Is she doing okay? Is she happy?"

Zhang Yuan looked to the side of the man then nodded. "She seems quite well. It's been a lot to get used to, but she says the money you've sent over to her has helped a lot."

The middle aged man's face broke into a wide smile and he put a hand to his forehead. "Oh, that's good, that's really good. I'm so glad..." He mumbled. Then he raised his head again and beamed at Zhang Yuan, taking his hand and shaking it. "And thank you so much. If you hadn't been here to tell me what to do, I don't know what I would have done."

Zhang Yuan laughed a little uncomfortably and ducked his head humbly. "It's nothing, really," he said.

The middle aged man pulled something out from his pocket and slid it into Zhang Yuan's hand. "Thank you," he said again before pulling away.

He walked a few steps then waved back at Zhang Yuan then continued on. Zhang Yuan nodded then looked at the crisp, paper bills in his hand. He counted them. Not a bad payout for an afternoon's work.

He was in an empty half-park, half-courtyard area between two building estates. It had drooping banyan trees planted around the edges but was mostly a concrete affair, hence the hesitant description. It was usually quite busy but the morning crowd of old men chess players and dancing grannies had cleared out for the day, probably going off to eat a late breakfast at the nearby Canton yumcha restaurant, so the place was empty now. Or nearly empty, as Zhang Yuan found after looking around.

Sitting on the concrete steps leading into the courtyard with one arm up on a raised knee was a man.

He was wearing a pair of baggy shorts and an unbuttoned, flowery shirt over a black singlet, and his hair was cut short in a prison-style buzz-cut. There was something familiar about him but Zhang Yuan couldn't quite figure out what nor did he want to stick around to find out. Not only did he look like the kind of person who wouldn't hesitate to knock you over the head and steal everything you had, regardless of value, he also had a plethora of translucent globs floating around him. Just looking at him made Zhang Yuan feel queasy.

So, pretending like he had some urgent business, Zhang Yuan got out his phone, put it to his ear, and quickly walked off in the opposite direction.

But just wishing for something doesn't make it so.

--

It wasn't the wailing that woke Zhang Yuan the next morning, both human and supernatural, but the gnawing in his stomach. He tried to ignore it all and curl up to sleep again but rest would not come and the pain just grew larger and larger. Finally he forced himself up but a quick stumble to the refrigerator proved fruitless, as did a dig around the cupboards of the kitchen. There was not a thing edible in the flat.

Zhang Yuan checked the clock on his phone. It was earlier than he usually went out in the morning but there was a supermarket that had opened up just down the road. Maybe he could go there. If he was quick about it, he'd probably not run into the funeral procession. After a few pauses to let the stomach cramps die down, he grabbed what he needed, slipped on his usual pair of flip-flops, and went out the door.

It wasn't even nine in the morning yet but the difference in temperature between the sunlit areas and the shaded areas was near unbearable. Zhang Yuan hugged the shaded side of the street and regretted not wearing a hat. Turns out the weather station was right about the coming heatwave after all.

And it turned out Zhang Yuan was wrong about that new convenience store being nearby. While he could see it in the hazy, mirage-like distance, it was still a good ways away. He could also see the white wisps of floating white start to round the corner.

The clanging and wailing of the funeral procession drew nearer. It sounded like they were nearly at the corner, about to turn onto Zhang Yuan's street. If he could just get across this intersection before...

It was too late. Right as Zhang Yuan stepped into the sunlight plastered street corner the first mourner rounded the corner, very nearly colliding with Zhang Yuan. Zhang Yuan quickly bowed his head and apologised. Without waiting for a reply, or worse a spark of recognition, Zhang Yuan skirted to the side and ducked his head as he walked down the side of the street beside the precession trying his best to not glance at the white aparations that swirled around and through the crowd.

His head low, he got about two-thirds the way down the line of people before a rough arm grabbed him.

"What the hell do you think you're doing here?!" The man was in his twenties and probably would be considered relatively good looking were it not for the grief clawing at his face.

A woman beside him, looking equally pained, tugged at the man's arm. "Don't...," she began to say but the man shrugged her off.

"You're not from here," he growled at her. "You don't know about this, this... *trickster*."

The woman's eyes widened and she looked anew at Zhang Yuan. "Wait, he's-"

Zhang Yuan swallowed hard and tried to pull out of the man's grip, but where the man was strong, he was weak and hungry and he only managed to stretch his shirt.

By now the commotion had gathered some attention and more heads turned to see what the fuss was about, a few of them clearly recognising Zhang Yuan.

A lethargic sense of panic started to rise in Zhang Yuan. Lethargic, because this was hardly a new situation for him, and panic, because despite his familarity with this kind of situation, it was still scary to have a mob turn on you. He grit his teeth and looked at the ground, trying to make himself smaller.

"Enough!"

The crowd fell silent. The white wisps darted away. Zhang Yuan looked up and saw the end of the procession had caught up to them. From the very end strode forward a man in a tiger-pattern shirt with his hands in his pockets and a stern look on his face. It was that scary looking guy from the park. Zhang Yuan froze.

The scary man walked up to Zhang Yuan and the man holding him hostage and roughly yanked at the man's arm. With just one movement he broke the man's grip and twisted his arm so that he was forced to turn away, to turn back to where the procession was walking.

Just that one act broke the tension and the curious eyes turned away from Zhang Yuan. The grieving man started to turn back, an ugly expression on his face, but the unwavering glare of the scary man stopped him in his tracks. He threw a dark look at Zhang Yuan then turned to continue after the funeral procession.

The scary man glanced at Zhang Yuan, then gave him a quick pat on the arm, then continued on behind the funeral procession, all before Zhang Yuan could get out any word of thanks.

Later as he walked back from the convenience store, bags laddened with heavily processed foods, Zhang Yuan suddenly stopped. He remembered where he'd seen that scary man before, or rather, where he always saw him.

His name was Mo Sanmei and he was the director of a funeral parlour.

--

"Do you know Zhang Yuan?"

It was a sudden, unexpected question and took Wang Jianren a moment to process. "Zhang... Oh, do you mean that guy who pretends to talk to people's dead relatives for money? I wouldn't say I know him. Why?"

Mo Sanmei, usually known as San-ge, made a few scrawling, unintelligible marks on the papers in front of him. "So you know about him then?"

Wang Jianren stopped his fiddling with his phone and turned to fully face San-ge. They were sitting in the little office/reception/shop of San-ge, Mo Sanmei's, funeral parlour 'Heaven's Lucky Welcome', with the door open and the wall fan on full blast. Between the fan and the screams and shouts of the children playing down the street, it was hard to hear oneself think. "What are you so interested in Zhang Yuan for?"

San-ge glared at Wang Jianren and flipped to the next page of the accounting book. "I'm not interested. I'm curious."

Wang Jianren, unperturbed by San-ge's gruff exterior, laughed and kicked at the ground to slowly propell his swivel chair closer to the desk. "What, did he offend you or something? Call up the dead or something?"

"No," replied San-ge. He dragged a large plastic calculator down from the shelf to the side of the table and started punching at it. "I just don't remember him doing things like that before."

Wang Jianren stared at San-ge for a moment. "Oh, that's right..." exclaimed Wang Jianren. "You were in jail for all of that."

San-ge looked sceptically at Wang Jianren. "All of what?"

Wang Jianren glanced about furtively then leaned over the table, his chair groaning at his weight. He licked his lips and opened his mouth.

"That Zhang Yuan accused someone of murder."

The sun went behind a cloud and the office dimmed, the glint leaving Wang Jianren's glasses.

"Murder?"

"Yeah."

"Zhang Yuan?"

"Yeah."

San-ge leaned back in his seat and crossed his arms. "Really?"

"Really! I'm not lying," spluttered Wang Jianren. "I know, I know, it seems pretty out of character right? He always seemed like such a nice kid, right? So the police took it seriously." He was really getting into the storytelling, even putting an elbow over San-ge's paperwork to help distribute his weight so he could continue to lean over conspiratorially. "And then-"

But before he could continue San-ge suddenly pushed back his own chair and got up. "I'm off to pick up Xiaowen. Finish this up would you," San-ge said nodding with his chin at the mass of papers on the table. Then, without waiting for a reply or acknowledgement, he squeezed past Wang Jianren, grabbed his keys off a nail on the wall, and walked out the door.

--

Bright yellow light streamed in through the window, turning a warm green as it passed through the miriad of leaves and stems of the plants nearest the window. Orchids, ferns, and bamboo alike all crowded the space with very little room between them. Some of the plants were in pots but most lived in used glass jars and plastic cartons that had been cut in half and little attention given to what was a 'proper' house plant and what was a weed snipped from the side of the road. 

It was a Friday so Zhang Yuan filled up his little watering spray bottle and slowly made his way around his small flat, watering each of his pot plants. The maidenhair was going well, and so were the orchids from last year, though the succulents were all getting a little leggy. He picked up a few of the most elongated plants and took them to the kitchen side of the one room flat and set them on the window sill. He didn't mind how they looked but he didn't want them to be more stressed than they needed to be.

Zhang Yuan stepped back from the window sill and took a moment to snap a photograph of the scene with his phone.

Click.

He peered at the picture on the small screen. It wasn't a great shot but he liked it. Maybe he'd print it out at the library later. He clicked at the keypad on the phone and moved the image into his Library folder then dropped the phone on the kitchen island counter before before refilling his mug at the sink and returned to fussing over his plants. A few of the orchids had been looking a little peaky for a few weeks but today they were looking much better.

Life. That's what he liked about them. They were so full of life and the will to live.

As usual he had a few cuttings in glass jars from his weekly sojourns and it was these he paid close attention to. He'd spotted and snipped a bit of a strange fern he'd not seen before and was curious if it would take to being a house plant given it's somewhat shady original environment. He didn't have a proper watering spray can, nor could he afford one, but he had an old plastic spray bottle, originally used for a cleaning spray he'd found on the street and it worked just as well as a means to spray the plants that needed the humidity even if it took a lot longer. Besides, it's not like he had anything better to do.

He had just finished spraying the last of his plants when his phone started to vibrate loudly on the counter. Zhang Yuan always wished he could reduce just how violent the vibrations were but it was a feature phone and not a smartphone so he resigned himself to just putting up with it.

Zhang Yuan struggled to his feet, legs numb from crouching for so long, scuffled to the kitchen and picked up his phone.

"Yangyang. What's up?"

"Ey, Ge! Are you busy?"

Zhang Yuan leaned against the counter with a smile on his face. "No. What do you need?"

Zhang Yuan's little sister Zhang Yang was only a few years younger than him but between her endless enthusiasm and Zhang Yuan's quiet resignation their age gap seemed larger. "Okay, so, here's the thing. I'm supposed to pick Xiao-Rong up from school today but I can just tell this shoot is going to go over time so I was wondering if..."

The smile on Zhang Yuan's face faded away and he took a deep breath. "You want me to pick him up?" he asked.

"Pretty, pretty please!"

Zhang Yuan bit his lip. "Your husband can't pick him up?"

"He's on a business trip. Won't get back until tomorrow."

There was silence and Zhang Yuan could hear someone on the film crew shouting from his sister's side of the phone. He sighed. "Okay," he said. "If you think it's okay..."

"Of course it's okay! You're his uncle and my older brother. What's there to be not okay?" Her enthusiasm sounded a touch forced.

"Mm. It's, uh, the same place as before? Same school?" asked Zhang Yuan.

"The same, the same," replied Zhang Yang.

"Okay. I can do that."

"Ge! I love you! I'll message Xiao-Rong and let him know. Thank you! Muah!"

"Mm, bye."

And like that the hurricane departed. Zhang Yuan dropped his phone beside him and lay back on the counter with his feet still on the ground. He stared at the ceiling. There was a thin, new crack starting from the corner above the fridge wavering out toward the light in the centre of the room. Some day he'd have to ask his landlord for the ladder and have a look on the roof to see if anything was wrong. The place wasn't strictly legal so any problems he'd have to fix himself.

A white wisp ballooned through the wall, floating upward, and Zhang Yuan put his arm over his face to block out the sight of it. He had to head out soon and before that he had to make himself look presentable, shave, change his clothes, that kind of thing. He turned his head to the side and stared at the plants on the kitchen window sill. He hadn't done anything that day but already he felt exhausted.

--

There was an eery quality to the light that afternoon as Zhang Yuan walked to the school, like a broad smile hiding a knife. Fortunately, Zhang Yuan had brought two umbrellas with him and he opened one of them up as the rain started to come down. By the time he reached the school gates it was properly pouring.

Zhang Yuan stopped under a tree and slid one of his sandals off. Some wet grass had gotten stuck to the inside and he bent over to try to pick them off. He got the grass off and slid his foot back into the sandal, but instead of getting up he remained crouched. He felt like a snail with rain bouncing off his shell and the thought brought a smile to his lips. Somewhere in the din of the falling rain he heard the school bell chime. Good, he hadn't gotten there too early so would hopefully not have to wait long.

He pulled his phone out of his pocket and took a quick picture of the rain as it dropped big and plump onto the puddle next to him but he couldn't make out anything on the little back-lit LCD screen. He put it away and went back to being a snail.

There was a distant splashing sound and Zhang Yuan turned to see someone running up the road toward him, or rather, toward the school. He didn't seem to notice Zhang Yuan and instead made a beeline toward the school gate.

Zhang Yuan wasn't the kind of person to go out of his way for random strangers but something made him suddenly rise and hold his umbrella over the head of the man. He turned, surprised.

Oh. It was Mo Sanmei.

"Uh, are you... picking someone up?" Zhang Yuan asked.

"Mm." There was an awkward pause. Zhang Yuan broke eye contact and looked around. Ah, Mo Sanmei was wearing a shirt with large fern fronds. "My daughter," Mo Sanmei continued. "Are you also...?"

"Oh, yes. Uh, my nephew."

Another silence ensued only to be broken by a speeding cyclist tearing up the sidewalk. Mo Sanmei grabbed the back of Zhang Yuan's shirt and pulled him back just in time to not get run over. He also shouted some profanities at the rapidly disappearing figure which made Zhang Yuan's ears go red.

"You're still so quiet," said Mo Sanmei. He took the umbrella from Zhang Yuan and held it steadily above the both of them as they stood beside the tree.

"Eh? 'Still'...?"

Mo Sanmei eyed him. "The other day you let that guy yell at you during the funeral procession," he said.

"Ah..." Zhang Yuan smiled helplessly. He tried to think of some explanation but couldn't think of anything.

"Being quiet's not necesarily a bad thing," Mo Sanmei went on. "Just make sure you don't get bullied. If you get bullied, just let me know. I'll deal with it." He paused and looked at Zhang Yuan. "You know who I am right?"

"M-Mo Sanmei," Zhang Yuan obediently replied.

Mo Sanmei chuckled. "Just San-ge's fine."

Zhang Yuan looked cautiously over at his umbrella partner. He looked like bad news but perhaps he was the loyal 'brotherhood' kind of guy, would go to the ends of the earth for you, that kind of guy. Zhang Yuan smiled. He could imagine this guy shouting at the ocean while standing on a cliff as the waves crash everywhere.

The doors of the school creaked open and the distant screams of excited children grew to become deafening. Try as the teachers might, the children just couldn't be calmed in the face of a tropical downpour.

One little girl with one side of her hair up in a neat plait and the other completely loose bound down the stairs and squeezed past the barely opened school gates. Next to Zhang Yuan, Mo Sanmei, no, San-ge grinned and began to walk forward but stopped.

"Oh, here," he said, holding the umbrella back toward Zhang Yuan.

Zhang Yuan shook his head. "Nah, it's alright. I have another. You go ahead."

San-ge stared at him, unsure, so Zhang Yuan smiled and pulled out his other umbrella. This seemed to convince him and he walked toward the little girl.

Zhang Yuan watched San-ge and the little girl interact animatedly. San-ge took a look at her messy hair, said something, then the girl seemed to make some kind of justification for it. Apparently convinced, San-ge handed the girl the umbrella to hold while he crouched down behind her and retied her hair into a simple single braid down the back, completely unconcerned with all the people swarming around them. Zhang Yuan guessed this was a regular occurrence and his insides melted a little.

More parents had arrived by now with many ushering their small charges to waiting cars and taxis. Zhang Yuan's nephew should be about the same age as San-ge's daughter so Zhang Yuan forced his attention from the pair and looked more intently at the crowd of children coming out from the school.

Ah, there were the pair of headphones. Zhang Yuan raised a hand and waved at a boy with long bangs, that did little to hide his glum expression, and a large pair of black headphones. The boy noticed Zhang Yuan, grimaced, then pretended he hadn't seen him. He reached around in his backpack and got out an umbrella of his own then squeezed out the gate.

Zhang Yuan sighed inwardly, shot one last glance at San-ge and his daughter, and quickly followed after his nephew.