The Sand Knows Its Purity
. . .
The stewardess was a small girl, round faced and perfect like a plum in her uncreased stewardess's uniform, and she gave every passenger on the bullet train now leaving Guangzhou the same perfect, uncreased smile whether or not she could identify them as true mainland Chinese or a tourist. Only the light in her eye changed, and most on the train would never see it, because it was something that came from inside her.
She could not identify the man in seat 38, and that troubled her. His ticket was right, his face was right, his Cantonese was perfect, but something seemed off. It wasn't the package he kept his hand on, no, that was nothing. It was just an old book. Yet perhaps that was part of the answer. Perhaps the man was just a professor, someone at a university in Hong Kong, where the train would arrive in about two hours. A Western-style thinker. Maybe that's all she saw on his face. That little bit of something else that said maybe he thought beyond what was best for China.
Still, she smiled at him, and gave him his cookie and his water, and the man, Wong, smiled back at her with his shaved head bowed in the exact right way, and she went on, just as troubled as ever by something she could sense but not see. As if the spirits might be telling her something, but she was a modern Chinese girl, doing her best to be a model citizen of her great country, and while she prayed exactly when she needed to and thought kindly of her ancestors, she didn't worry very much about all that the rest of the time.
Wong watched her go, his hand softly patting the paper wrapping the old, old book he'd managed to smuggle out of the ancient temple deep in rural Guangdong, and he kept smiling, because she seemed like a nice girl with good eyes, but she was happy where she was and wouldn't ever see anything more than what she wanted to, not really. Most people were like that, and he understood. He didn't judge. There were many things he was privately sorrowful for when he visited home, but he didn't judge.
The book was tied up with a thin rope, wound straw and hay, just as it had been for centuries, and when his fingers picked across it, he could smell that good, old smell shaking loose. It didn't tickle his nose, he was too used to such things. He breathed it deep, like magic dust. Like the book within was happy to see the sky again and was shaking itself free of the years.
It was, too.
Wong kept smiling, purely for himself, because he loved what he did and he loved what he was doing right now. Why not, he thought? One way or another, he'd been doing something like it for all of his life.
The train rushed through cut swaths of China, old and new torn open and placed side by side, pages of a book made of all the centuries the country had survived and changed and never changed, and he loved it here, he did. All the old roadside shrines and roadside food, the people, the languages, every dialect and river, and soon he would gone from Guangdong, where he had been born, and on to Hong Kong, which had been his home, and then on to his family, the family he venerated now above all else, because it contained all he could have ever wished for, in a life where he had been born into almost nothing, and been happy to give it up for everything.
Wong leaned into the window, ignoring the little plastic shelf pressed there for his coming food, the book cradled carefully in his shadow, and as the world rushed by, he drifted away, just a little, remembering running, running free, protecting his books not for the first time, but for a young time…
. . .
He was a round kid, with stocky legs pounding underneath a stockier body, and he was easily dismissed by the gweilo kids at their British school as fat (he felt bad about calling them that, but they'd been mean to him first), but he was fast, too. Within all that stockiness was a fair amount of survivor muscle and not a bad amount of gracefulness, and when he wanted to move, he did.
His precious cargo was thumping around in a bag slung over his arm, and it wasn't secured very well because the nylon was torn when it had been given to him and there wasn't much he could do about it except keep taping it back up. That wasn't something he could stop to do right now, so as he ran, he looked lopsided, because one arm kept thumping back down to keep the bag from jumping around too much and ripping up the duct tape. The streets were wet, as they usually were this time of year, and if his prizes dropped out, they were going to be ruined. No take-backs. Nature always called paper home, if it slipped a hand.
He glanced up at the skyscrapers to mark his path as he ran, knowing most of his trails by heart. Kids did, in Hong Kong. You marked trail and you selected paths, and you knew your landmarks, because if you got lost, kid, you were in trouble. The wrong turn, you're on a boat to the islands. The wrong step up, you're on a bus to Victoria Harbor. The wrong street, Kowloon's nightlife sometimes didn't have a lot of mercy. Too much of a mix. Neon and cocaine, kung fu movies and bootleg Western cop shows. Bruce Lee was still in and still mourned almost a decade on, Jackie Chan was on the way, and Shaolin vs. Wu Tang was still a movie and not a rap group.
Wong smelled street food and street grease, and the right scent of chopped onions tossed across a griddle told him he was coming on the left turn hook he needed to keep outrunning the kids behind him. White kids, which meant they were gonna get away with it if they caught him. White kids, who could say the comic books the other white kid gave him, Joey from Ohio whose Mom worked at a bank (years on, Wong didn't know where Joey from Ohio was, but he hoped Joey was doing great somewhere that wasn't Ohio, where the kid had been miserable), were actually theirs.
His hand tensed around the strap of the bag and his breath went ragged, fear coming back anew. At least five of the comics Joey had passed to him were new! Stories he'd never read before, his gaze hungrily scrabbling over titles and issue numbers before stowing them away.
"Hey!" screamed one of the bigger kids behind him, gaining. "Hey, you little turd!"
Wong looked back and got more speed, juking down his turn and then immediately hitting fresh panic. He could fight, and well, but he didn't like to, and the treasure had to be considered. There was a back-up in the road, someone's stall slopping over because the old boxes it had been built on had given up. The bag made a soft, tearing noise as he came to a complete stop, his brain going dead empty at the disaster.
If he went right from here, that would lead to the passenger trains, and all the business people that passed through this part of the city. He wouldn't fit there, they'd push him out right back into the arms of his pursuers. If he kept going left… shit.
The American word kept blurting in his mind, over and over, satisfying in its profane weight.
Left was the rumor of the night markets. Evening noodles and businessmen doing business not meant for day. Corruption walked down some of those streets, with the others built on rumors of worse things and weirder things, and he'd promised his mother that he would never, ever go down that way after dark. Which it was rapidly becoming, but Joey had given Wong the cheap Captain America reprints he'd never seen before, and all he'd had to trade to get them was an old Tintin book he knew by heart.
Promises went out the window when Wong looked over his shoulder and saw the whites of the biggest kid's eyes as he was coming up on the last dozen meters of the chase. Wong slapped his elbow hard over the cheap fabric that was the only barricade between him and all of this being for nothing, and he dove headlong into the grit.
He went right again almost instantly, hoping that all he would get would be a glance at the bars opening up for the night with girls at the door who didn't look like anyone or anything he'd ever seen before and then back into the market alleys he knew better, but instead he somehow got turned around and realized he was staring up at a graffiti wall he didn't recognize.
Wong's heart sank to the tops of his cheap sneakers, and knew if he didn't backtrack towards his enemies, he was going to be not just lost, but super-duper lost, and in a (his mind whispered this worse word with discreet childhood taboo) shitload of trouble with his mom, who would be getting home from another long day and easily terrified by her son's adventures in the city at the best of times. She did her best, and he hated to see her cry, and hated that he never knew why she did sometimes, when she thought he was asleep. She never talked about his father. He suspected that was why she cried.
He sucked in his courage and tried to go back the way he came, and found an equally unrecognizable alley. His eyes got huge and round in his head. Had he made an extra turn in his panic and not realized it?
He whipped around, looking up, looking at the skyscrapers to try and get his bearing, but the panic was already worming down hard and cold and the skyline seemed to double and then triple. He was ten years old, and Wong firmly believed he was gonna get sold to one of the cargo companies down by the harbor that only had workers 'off the books.'
Okay. Okay, okay, okay. Wong was smart, he could handle this. He blinked and shook his head. He couldn't hear the bigger kids yelling after him anymore, just the night sounds and the buzz of neon and the cars racing down an unseen street nearby, and the raucous sounds of-
"The night markets." He whispered it to himself, horrified. The rumors of terrible things. Imported meats that looked unearthly, disappearing into the backrooms of illicit medicine shops. Herbs that could destroy your brain if you smelled their smoke. Yaoguai bull-men guarding doors that only appeared at night. Magic grains of rice inscribed with secret Cantonese magic, a single one capable of cursing a family for a thousand years.
During day all of this seemed about as real as the stories Wong read. It was stupid kid-stuff to worry about. But Captain America was real, whispered his brain to him. He still couldn't believe that! He'd even seen the old reel footage at a friend's house off an old tape and had to fight to accept that. And so, the stories dug into his brain, sharp, like eagle's talons. He shook his head, trying to get himself back together.
The most logical way to turn to get onto a loop back towards home before it got late, too late, was one that should cut right through that noisy street just out of sight. Logic, Wong told himself. Not panic. He took a breath, and shimmied down an alley, past a couple abandoned stalls, and found himself…
Staring up, up, up, at a man wearing bull-mask, in red robes and carrying a golden urn. Wong gawped at him, the riot of the street beyond turning into a colorful stew of nothing but chaos. The bull-man guffawed down at him, a man's voice echoing out. Wong didn't understand what he said at first.
"Oh, go on!" yelled someone behind the bull-man in a mix of Cantonese and English. "Don't be a wimp. You can see out that mask fine."
"Almost stepped on a kid," came the shout back, this time in accented but understandable Mandarin.
"Kid's fine. I see him. Curtain calling in ten!"
Curtain calling? Wong blinked rapidly, then almost fell over in relief as the man in the bull mask tromped by. A theatre troupe! That was all.
"Hey, kid! You're past curfew."
This he could handle. He yelled back, street attitude and rebound bravado masking anything he really felt. "I got lost!"
"Your bad luck, kid." Wong saw the guy jerk a thumb behind him. "You don't want to be on this side of the street too long. They're up to some weird shit down at the corner, I'm gonna get out of here and I've been running market for fifty years. Go down three stalls, hang a right when you see the charm seller. Don't touch anything, just go straight down that alley, no matter how it looks. It'll drop you back out where you came. I don't know where you came from, mind, but it should roundabout you back out where you started."
Wait, what? Wong's face started to go round and gawpy again, and the background behind the man, who had far too long a face and too young sounding to be more than fifty, started to get more clear than Wong wanted.
"If you think you're about to miss that turn, look for one of the weirdos in the blue tunics. Or the yellow ones, if you get one of the higher-ups. They come out of the Sanctum down there, keep an eye on shit. They'll get you back topside."
Now it fell out his mouth, full and roaring with confused terror. "WHAT?"
The goat-man spirit, grinning with all his teeth, nearly bleated at him. "You got good feet, kid. Took you where daysiders aren't supposed to be. Now get your feet to take you back home, before they get you into worse trouble."
Someone else slammed into Wong, not bothering to look down at him. Stunned, Wong smelled heavy spices, cardamon and curry, and something muskier. Stranger. Then it was gone, and there was only the day's past rain, and paper, and…
This really was the night market. The real one, not the opium dens or the nude girl clubs. The goat-spirit bleated at him, and Wong got moving, barely blinking, taking in everything with the hazy glaze of someone that had to be dreaming. That he would wake up on a bench where he took a nap after running from the big kids. He told himself he didn't pass a stall full of muttering plants locked in soundproof glass cases. He didn't pass steamed buns cooked by a half-giant with a toothless grin, passing them out to ordinary people with bird feet. He absolutely, resolutely, did not pass the kindly snake-girl with a teddy bear in her narrow hands, chanting good fortunes to all who passed, who tried to whisper to him that time was on his side, that it would always be on his side, and who looked at him with a bright green gleam in her eye that seemed perfectly, spiritually deliberate.
And he almost didn't see, in his blank-minded terror, the wall of saffron fabric that he promptly tangled himself up in and then fell into.
"Oh my, hello there, lad." A spindly woman's hand came down and set him back on his feet with so much easy grace he almost missed the strength in it. Wong looked up, shocked, into the smooth face of a bald white woman. She smiled at him, porcelain and strange, her accent clean like water. "It's Wong. I haven't seen you in… oh, wait. Haven't seen you yet. This is the first." She stroked the top of his hair, like an old friend or an old Chinese grandmother. "This is when you got lost, and thought you dreamed of all of us."
"I am dreaming." He said it in Yue Cantonese, just like his mother taught him, like a charm against evil magic. "I am dreaming, and there's no such place as the night market. It's just a story to scare kids so we don't get lost on the streets."
"But you found yourself lost, and so you found your way here." The woman let him go, stepping back from him and putting her hands together respectfully. "So the question becomes, what is reality, and what is dream? What is story, and what is real life?" A smile crinkled her face, making her look ageless and curious and wise. Wong wondered what kind of spirit she was. "All of it aspects of something powerful. But it's all the same thing, too. The mirrors all look within. I'm in your story right now, Wong, and someday, you'll be very important in one of mine."
"Who are you?"
"I'm your friend, or will be." She took his shoulder and turned him towards an alley that he must have missed. It was all bright at the end of it, and he jerked, realizing he recognized the little electronics shop at the end of it. Another turn just past it, and he'd be right home! "And today I'm your guide. May I give you one suggestion, one new thing to consider?"
"Mmm." He couldn't take his eyes off the alley path. It was perfect, he'd even cut a good ten minutes off his run and be home, maybe, just before Mom got in.
"When you walk home from school tomorrow, use the western road to connect back to your street. You might see something you like. But that, Wong, is entirely your decision to make. This is just a dream, of course, and you must make your own choices."
"Okay," he said, in English. Politeness took over, the comic books were heavy again under his arm, and he was so much closer to home than he'd dared dream. "Thank you, miss."
"You're very welcome." She gave him a gentle push. "Go on then. And don't look back."
Wong stepped towards the alley, sleepwalking, and behind him, the roar of some beast, like a dragon or a howling river spirit, began to fill the air with triumphant power. No. He never looked back. It had to be a dream. It was all a dream.
Mom didn't notice anything wrong with him. Why not? He'd napped, he'd gone home. That was it, of course. The comic books were the only thing he'd taken that were real.
. . .
Wong shifted in his seat as the train kept rushing, rushing on, the book still safe under his arm, and he was still smiling at old memories and old dreams. The next day of school, he'd taken the busier walk home because his dream had told him to, and he'd passed the dusty bookstore with its carts of cheap paperbacks and comics from all over, and out of date maps, and all sorts of new goodies. Another whole treasure trove for a kid like him. And like so many such troves, out of his reach, because he didn't have any money.
There was an old British man that had run the shop, and he trundled out to see the little Chinese boy looking at his stuff. It was obvious he thought Wong was going to steal something at first, but eventually the reverential way Wong was looking at everything settled him down.
"You want a job?" The question had been a shock. "Can you read?"
"I can read," said young Wong, still alive in older Wong's memories, still excited. "I can read English, and I can read Chinese, and I can even read a little French!" This was mostly true. He was picking it up from Asterix comics, but it counted, he reckoned.
"If that's true," said the old man, sounding doubtful, "then you can come by three times a week to help me sort out the new stuff I get in. I'll pay you minimum, but you can pick out a couple books each time."
It was like he'd never woken up. It was everything young Wong could have wanted, and with the money, he put a few more steamed buns and vegetables in the little fridge for Mom to have at night, and he put some money aside for school, and he bought new shoes that were still inexpensive but not as cheap as those sneakers. And books! So many books!
All because the good spirits in his dream showed him a new road, and he took the chance.
Today, Wong chuckled at himself, resettling as the stewardess brought him a little hot pot of noodles and put it on the tray by his window. Dreams. They'd all been very real, of course, but it had been safer to think of it as a dream until he decided he was all right with what those dreams would mean to his reality. That had been, as foretold, his choice to make. In the right time.
Paper crinkled next to him. The book was feeling antsy inside its thin cage. It wanted the light. "Soon," he said to it, patting it like a puppy. This one wouldn't have to be chained up, like a lot of the special collections were. It could go into one of the upper rooms of the library, where bits of colored glass etched with magic brought safe, calming light in for the old magic to feed on. And he would read it, like he did most of the refugees Kamar-Taj brought home, and write a synopsis for the research stacks. It was his job, and he loved it, was fated for it, and walked into it with open arms.
Memories glittered across the fields blurring outside the train like dew.
. . .
Wong went to college overseas, and the money he'd saved from working at the bookstore - five days a week before he had to tearfully leave for the UK, for a good wage, and basically running the whole place as old man Bartle napped - paid for new clothes and books and food. Scholarships did the rest, and for a month he'd staggered around London, dumbstruck by how vibrant, alive, and open the metro felt compared to Hong Kong, yet still entirely a city with its own spirit and language. He was so in love with it that he never noticed some of his other students assuming he was a big, round bumpkin from the rice paddies, not a city boy himself.
Part of him would have just grinned and shrugged it off. Westerners sometimes had a way of being rude in ways they didn't even recognize. He could forgive, he was a big man and, well, if he had to, he could punch. His memories of being that young were faint, but he had grown up with dirty feet, deep in rural Guangdong, playing catch the tadpole and making patterns in the paddies between the rains. Before Mom had taken him away from the family, which he thought he understood, but now, older, he had questions and maybe even a little anger that he didn't like feeling and judged himself for.
Other Chinese men sometimes treated men strangely if they had no father. Wong knew he had one, of course, but Mom said almost nothing about him, only cryptic mentions of their past in general, high context Cantonese mutters about how she worked to keep her and her son both in good health and that her sisters loved them and sent them treats for every birthday and holiday. He still kept Auntie's small piece of jade in his pocket most days, a little round thing tied to a tough, pearly string so he wouldn't lose it. Ten years old, it had come in the post for him with a red note written with gold ink, and it had made little sense to him, but he kept it anyway. He didn't keep much material stuff close to heart.
Mom coughed a lot that year, but it went away, and she kept working, and so did he.
He dreamed of Hong Kong, though, when he was at school. Almost every night, wandering the streets, this time without any fear. In the dream he knew every street and where it connected, like the map was etched over his very soul, and that his blood meant he could get anywhere from anywhere, and he would never be lost in China.
There was a bright green eye in those dreams, and a smiling snake that shimmered porcelain white, and then sometimes there was a black mask over a goat, and that was his father, and that's when Wong would wake up. Over and over.
Mom was sick again when he was fourteen, but she didn't let him worry. And again, at seventeen, but she had tried to hide it, and wave him away as she did her best for them both.
Wong was twenty-two, and he still dreamed every night, and he was working on an advanced degree in library science alongside one in Chinese history, and also taking a practical course on book restoration that another university was offering, and that was the year Mom called and said she was sick, and he said he knew, and she said in deeply accented Yue, No, Wong, I am very sick and now I am afraid, and I would like to see you this year for holiday, please.
. . .
Jiang Shu smiled up at her son from the bed she lay in, a bright and delighted beam in a pale, sickly face. Her sister nattered around the kitchen a few rooms away, dutifully making sure she didn't overhear the family reunion going on nearby.
"Mom," said Wong, and his voice was thick. He said the word again, in Yue, his accent still right and deep, and she reached a hand for him. The other was still on something hiding under the sheet. "How are you feeling?"
"I am alive, and I see my good son," she said, also in that shared dialect. "I am so grateful you came." Her hand faltered, and she patted at the bed by her side. She was thin now, so thin. "I wanted to tell you things."
Wong shook his head and went to sit. "You don't need to talk," he said, taking her hand. He didn't want to parse her words, not today. Not feel that fight inside his head, where he was tired of secrets. Books were easy, the whole story was laid out right there. People could be hard to read, especially family. The pages were thinner, the words blurred.
"I must. You should know these things."
"Mom." English again, almost by accident. English irritated her sometimes, because it was too open, too messy a language for her to really get. She used to complain that it made him sound like he was a world away, especially if he'd been playing with the western kids. "It's okay."
"No." She patted at his hand. "Let me talk, please, because you think I never listen to you when you were a child. I listen. I listen to your dreams, when you speak them while asleep. Now I must tell you. I am so proud of you, and your books, and your languages."
He knew six now, fluently, and so far he knew five dialects of Chinese, including a very old one that was only relevant to a couple iterations of one of the Great Novels, and he didn't know what to say.
"I never tell you about your father."
"Mom," he said, sounding helpless. "It doesn't matter."
"It does!" It came with almost wild strength, and the pots in the kitchen stopped rattling for a moment. "You think you have no father, that I raise you in shame. I do not. Your father, good man. But he is part of China, that new China." She patted at his hand and her brows furrowed. "I would tell you much. But we marry young, and we were happy, but he got a good job. We were happier yet. Then that good job becomes part of the Party, and now he is in government, and he wanted something else for you. He wanted you to be like new China, up there in Shanghai, in a good suit, looking out at the rest of the world." She patted at her chest, words rushing out now. "But I wanted to give you all of China, everything I was raised with. But I have to hide some of that now. Old China, we respect it, we pray for it, the incense - but many now are not remembering it. Just the new meanings they give it. And they hide it under the blood of tank men, and now we worship the way we are supposed to fear our leaders and we try to call it love."
She was speaking to him in a mix of Yue and English, and Wong was still trying to piece some of it together. He understood, mostly. He was still young when the Thing had happened that China wasn't supposed to talk about. The man in the square. The tanks. The students, broken down by the Party, a Party that still held power and now might always. Jiang Shu had taken him to Hong Kong a year after Tiananmen, suddenly, never acting like that was relevant. Never saying that it had been everything. It was in the context.
"I loved him, but I started to fear him. So much importance building inside the Party men, they forget the small things that bring love. They worry so much about the impact of a single word in wrong context, so they must crush it. Flower petals, torn by dogs, left to dirt. And that is… oh, my good son, you are a man of those words now, I am so, so proud." She was starting to cry.
"Mommy." In English, like a little Western boy. Her hand was clutching his.
"He is still there, a Party man. I write him letters. He disapproves of me, of your life in Hong Kong, of your schooling, of what you do, but he loves that he has a son. Educated and strong. He hopes someday you will consider him a home, and if I leave you, I am so afraid he would take you. You are a man now, but I am still afraid." She squeezed. "If you are ever in trouble in China, you remember that. You remember his name and mine. The laws are for all China, but Party is family. He will always help you, Wong, because it is tradition, and tradition is power."
He squeezed her hand. "Don't talk like this, Mom. You're going to be all right."
She coughed, and sniffed a little, and she smiled at him like he'd lied about being done with his homework. "I have not been all right in a long time, Wong. You know this."
He did. He lied to himself about that, not homework. He wanted to throw up.
That hand atop the sheet shifted, a thin little box underneath it. "I have letters to give you, things of record, so you have them someday. But this, this more important right now."
"Mom." He reached for it, she swatted him away and showed it to him herself. He reared back a little, surprised enough that he almost laughed. It was, of all things, a DVD. An English one, one he knew instantly. "Oh my god, Mom."
The Neverending Story. He'd loved that book, a dogeared English copy with the chapter illustrations being one his first prizes from Bartle's Bookshop. Hell, for his German courses he'd read the original version. The movie was silly, Wong knew that going in, but he'd gotten a bootleg at thirteen years old and still watched the tape to tatters.
"I never read the book, you know my English is bad. But I know you love the story. I want to share it with you, okay? Just a couple hours. Me and my good son. Okay?" She was smiling at him and her eyes were crystal bright from the wet, and she was speaking the language she wasn't good at. "Yes, silly mom, I ask you home and all these things I could tell you in letters, good and clear, but I want to watch a movie with my boy and feel not sick. Little while, you and me, happy."
Wong let go of her hand, reached up, and hugged her close to his chest. "Of course, Mom. As long as you want. You and me."
. . .
Wong's eyelids fluttered as he nearly fell asleep on the train, the garlicky smell of the empty hot pot fading as the girl swept it away. Mom hadn't died that year after all, she had died only a couple of years ago, peaceful and content, of old age in her sleep. Because that younger Wong had decided it was time to make some choices, and he was desperate, and he was full of love and didn't need much in his life except his books and his family. And his feet had taken him to look for the night market again, to find some herbs that might help her cough - not in the false way a lot of Chinese medicines promised. He knew too much about real medicine to put his faith in a little ground root and some fish scales put together by someone who prayed to money and not the old tao, places whose bagua posters came from the back of a catalog.
But the dream was still with him. The goat-people. The whispers of a Sanctum. The shiver of saffron, down an alley that shouldn't exist.
And he had found them, easily, and they had welcomed him, for Kamar-Taj needed a new librarian and was waiting for one to come, and they would need him more when his new friend, the Ancient One, made an enemy out of one of her students, and he had gone to them with nothing but what he knew and that huge love of family he had and a hope, but that was, as his favorite book liked to say, a story for another time.
Wong stirred awake and grinned as the train began to slow, pulling into familiar Hong Kong. Of course he could have simply opened a portal from the old shrine back to Kamar-Taj or even back on to New York and his new but rather arrogant friend. But to protect his sources in the rural provinces, it was much wiser to give his stolen bit of contraband a trail that led straight to a city China couldn't fully control, where the book would disappear down its streets like magic, hiding the real magic inside.
And all Wong's father knew was that he had a good son, who seemed troubled by the Party but was wise enough to reach out to him after Jiang Shu was gone, and who had no idea that Wong was using his access to rustle through all that forbidden Chinese history, oh, a few times a year to run support for operations like this one.
It was a good job, a happy world to be in, and Wong was having the time of his life.
He got off the train and he nodded farewell to the stewardess, whose eyes still looked at him like she wasn't quite sure what she was seeing, and he saw Stephen waiting for him at the far side of the terminal in old sweatpants and a Nike shirt.
"Hey," said Strange, looking tired.
"If you looked even more like a tourist, I'd throw up," said Wong, by way of greeting.
"Yeah, cool." Strange jerked a thumb at the book under his arm. "That the right one?"
"Rituals of the Water Snake, Singing Praise to Moon Lady," said Wong in perfect Yue, the words spilling off his tongue with raw magic.
"…..Yyyyyeah. I'm not even gonna try to pronounce that. What was the real problem with it?" Apparently the capital had been about to bulldoze the entire shrine area for a new market, part of the initiative to bring up rural areas. It had the intended 'side' effect of going after old but secretly important shrines.
"Written by an actual river dragon, inhabited with her conscious spirit. Probably would have wrecked every bulldozer in the district in a tantrum, which, no great loss." To emphasize this, the book started to wiggle under his arm.
"Okay." Strange nodded once, taking that in. He was still the new keeper of the New York Sanctum, and he was easy - and, Wong decided, hilariously fun - to confuse. "She down with going to some new digs?"
"Oh, she's very much looking forward to it. I let her taste my dreams a little on the way, get my bona fides. I think she's going to be happy to be read again. She has full faith in our library now."
Strange nodded again, and the blinking said he didn't have the faintest idea if Wong was fucking with him or not. Wong wasn't, but what a great effect anyway. "All right. You want a sandwich on the way back?"
Wong chuckled and clapped him on the back, turning him towards the busy, wending streets of the city, where it was still easy to get lost, and even easier, if one tried, to get found. "Let's walk Hong Kong a little bit, Stephen. I know a great place for octopus buns and noodles."
"Octopus… buns. Did I happen to mention I'm going through a vegetarian streak again?"
"Once you smell these, you won't be."
"Doubt," said Stephen, by way of actually showing emotion. His eyes narrowed, getting that New York truculence back.
Wong's hand tightened on Stephen's shoulder, reminding him that Wong was a good man, but that he could absolutely roundhouse the new guy right through the Agamotto window upstairs whenever he felt like it. "Try new stuff sometimes, Stephen. It seems to work out for you, if you let it. It's a big world out here. Let it love you."
"I think that phrase goes the other way."
"No," said Wong, looking back as the bullet train left again, looking back at China and all of its past, and thinking how much it meant to him. "Not for me it doesn't."
"Treasure even a handful of dirt from your home… " Journey to the West, attributed to Wu Cheng'en
Hi, I'm really not supposed to be here, I'm supposed to be working on other stuff, but I woke up out of a dead ass sleep with my brain going WONG CHINA NEVERENDING STORY LET HIM BE CHINESE RESPECT AND LOVE HIM HONG KONG AND THE SANCTUM the other night, so I wrote it down. It's not a major piece, but I liked writing it very much, and I wanted to respect who he is at heart, in the way I think of him, and also I wanted to respect Benedict Wong, his current actor. Any mistakes or disrespect towards China's culture in this piece is accidental and still my responsibility, please feel free to give me feedback.
You may notice this piece is in a new series file on AO3, with a title that is very clearly in progress, and that it is listed as a 'sequel' to another story. And it isn't a sequel to that, but this is your first notification that I may well be doing another full 'arc' the way the original Codex was in due time, and this piece is a bit of setting for the coming Halloween fic I am hoping to do, which will be a piece more firmly but subtly settled in this upcoming arc.
The title of this piece is inspired by Sha Wujing, or Sandy, the loyal monk of Journey to the West, a character not nearly known as well as Sun Wukong. Our Wong is in the middle of his own such journey, but I don't think he needs to be regarded as quite so secondary to the star.
Thank you for visiting. I'll see you soon.