There was something about visiting No Town that was both rejuvenating and exhausting at the same time. Surrounded by the smell of Xigenfese food--made a bit more bland and tame for Solacian stomachs, of course--the clatter of dishes and the shrill of voices, Jin slumped in his booth seat so that he could kick his feet up on the bench on the other side, and watched his aunt through the kitchen doorway. She was laying into a tiny girl named Dao Ming whose long hair was bound up in such a way that it looked like it would fall loose around her shoulders at the slightest provocation. The girl, one of Jin’s cousins, only stared back at the madam, sulky but not quite defiant, and didn’t say anything. Jin could tell from the tilt of her chin and the way her hands remained loose at her sides that whatever his aunt was yelling about, she had already made up her mind on the subject, and no amount of shrill-voiced screeching was going to make a difference.
Jin couldn’t actually hear what his aunt was saying, but he could hear her tone just fine. Unwilling to throw himself in front of that particular train, he picked at a stain on the table in front of him and looked around at the other patrons. There weren’t many others in the restaurant. There was a group of employees lingering around a booth by the door, chatting in a rushed mixture of Standard, Chinese and another Xifengese language Jin couldn’t quite place from where he was sitting. A family of four was sitting at one of the tables in the middle of the restaurant, the two adults blithely ignoring the mess the children were making as they discussed family finances and whether or not they could afford to move Core-ward. And if he craned his neck around, Jin could see the giant blond idiot his aunt had semi-adopted; the kid looked like he was talking to someone, but the boy’s broad shoulders blocked whoever it was from Jin’s view.
A hand grabbed Jin’s leg and shoved both of his feet off of the bench. He slipped further down in his seat and narrowly missed smacking his chin on the back of the booth. Facing front again, eyes level with the edge of the table, he peered up at his aunt as she slid into the other side of the booth.
“No feet where people sit. You leave Xifeng, you forget manners.” The woman regarded him with eyes narrowed and lips pursed shrewdly. “You not special, you know. I get new nephew. Make you cook dumpling for minimum wage. Then we see if you behave.”
Jin pushed himself up into a more comfortable position, an easy smile curling his lips. “Auntie Xiao, if you’re going to talk, you might as well talk in a language that doesn’t make you sound like a stereotype.”
She reached across the table and smacked him in the side of the head, but she did switch to Chinese. “Just because you have a nicer job than me doesn’t mean you can mouth off.”
Jin didn’t bother to avoid the strike, and continued to smile as he smoothed his hair back into place. “You know I only mouth off to you because I love you, Auntie.”
“You must love me more than anyone in the world then.” Her expression smoothed somewhat. “You should come back here, Xiaoping. Everyone misses you. I’d pay you well enough, and give you a place to live.”
He grimaced at the use of his proper name. Only people who had known him in Xifeng called him that. “I’ve got a good job.”
“That’s why you ran away from it to spend time here, hm?”
“Just because it’s good doesn’t mean I don’t get tired of it.”
“Are you getting paid to hide in my restaurant instead of work?” The old woman’s eyes narrowed again. “You have no work ethic. You’re lazy, like your father.”
Jin rolled his eyes, but took the criticism with a smile. It wasn’t the first time she’d said that, and really, this was tame compared to some of the rants he’d heard her go off on. Speaking of which--“What were yelling at Dao Ming about?”
“Oh, that.” She waved a hand dismissively. “Little slut got pregnant. She wants to keep it. Says her man will take care of her. I hope she doesn’t think she’s going to get time off for it.”
“Auntie, you run a brothel,” he pointed out.
The irony was lost on the madam. “And the boys and girls who work there make good money for what they do, and they’re careful. But sluts have sex for free and make mistakes like this.”
As his aunt spoke, Jin noticed a thin figure in a knit cap had appeared next to the kitchen entrance. He was facing away from Jin, talking to Dao Ming through the doorway, and although Jin couldn’t hear what they were saying, their inflection made him certain that while the boy was speaking Standard, the girl was still using Chinese. The language barrier didn’t seem to present much of a problem for them. They conversed easily, but not like people in love. That boy couldn’t have been the one who’d slept with her; there was no embarrassment or awkwardness--and no affection either--present in their body language to indicate something like that.
“Do you know who the father is?” Jin asked, still looking at the pair by the kitchen door.
His aunt followed his gaze and smirked as her dark eyes flickered back to him. “The one who will replace you as my nephew if you don’t shape up. He made some upgrades to the equipment in the kitchen--he’s very preoccupied with how good the food here is--and he got me papers for the upstairs. Everything’s legal now.”
Jin grimaced and glanced over his shoulder again. “If that idiot that lives in that old guy’s warehouse is nailing my cousin, I’ll--”
“You watch your mouth. He’s a lot more helpful to me than you are, lazy-ass.”
“Like I haven’t heard that one before, Auntie Xiao.” Only every time he saw her.
She gave him a calculating look, but changed the subject. “So why are you hiding from your work, hm? That Arcadian giving you trouble?”
“Nah, Riyad’s fine. Nyr, too.” Jin shrugged and slid down in his seat to put his feet up again. He’d barely settled into position when Xiao knocked his legs aside again. Even so, he didn’t miss a beat. “We’ve just been working on something confusing. Riyad thinks he’s figured out what it means, but I have no idea how he made the kinds of connections he did. It’s like he got from point A to point B by bending space-time instead of just by walking.”
His aunt rolled her eyes. “You always use twenty words with you only need five, Xiaoping.”
Sitting up straight again, he put his hands on the table, and pointedly ignored her comment in order to elucidate. “What I mean is, we have this symbol, right? And it has to do with how the monsters got into the city. Wherever this symbol showed up there were hotspots of activity. So we’re trying to figure out what it means and--”
“Xiaoping, I have work to do--”
“I’m getting there! What was I--” He paused, trying to track down where his train of thought had been heading. “Oh! Right! Okay. So the symbol is actually made up of other symbols, and Riyad says they have to do with auto-something-or-other. Something about changes occurring without outside influences having an affect.”
Of course, he knew the word he had skipped over, but he was surprised when his aunt said, “Autocatalysis.”
He stared at her. “...How do you even know that word?”
“I went to school, just like you did.” She examined her nails. “Keep going, or I’ll go back to work.”
“Yeah, yeah, okay, Auntie. So Riyad thinks the symbol is actually a message from whoever made it and that person is really powerful, and to be honest I don’t even know what the hell the point is. Knowing about this symbol isn’t really going to undo what happened, and it’s not helping us get anymore work done.”
“So you came to hide in my restaurant.”
His grin was unabashed. “Yeah. Just for a few days.”
“Lazy.” She hit him upside the head again--a little harder than before, so that he wished he had ducked this time--and slid out of the booth. “You go to my apartment and start making supper. There’s some crab--make rangoons with it.”
Jin’s eyes lit up. “They’ll be the best rangoons you’ve ever had.”
“Good. Then you can come back here to work and stop dealing with things no one cares about.”
“People are going to care about this.”
“When?” She shook her head. “That kind of thing never pays off.”
“You’ve just got no imagination,” he countered, getting to his feet.
She gave an unladylike snort and waved her hand at him. “Imagination doesn’t pay bills. Now go make the rangoons before I change my mind and you have to ride the tram three hours back home.”
Leaning over, Jin smiled and gave the older woman a kiss on the cheek. She pushed him away with an indignant noise, but he could see her eyes smiling.
“Anything for my Auntie Xiao.”
He let himself be pushed to the exit, waving to the group by the door as he went. Outside on the street, he started around to the back of the building, where the stairs that led up to his aunt’s apartment above the brothel were. The iron creaked as he made his way up, and he paused outside of her front door on the third story landing to gaze down the street.
In the distance, he could see a few of the cranes that marked the edge of the damage zone, but they were hardly visible. He couldn’t see the piles of rubble at all, or any of the mangled tram-lines. No Town was virtually untouched by the violence of the attacks that had ravaged the city. The only sign of change were the number of people moving Core-ward now that there were jobs and living space opening up there.
It worried him somewhat. As much as he felt secure in his own job, certain that Riyad would continue to fund them until he and Nyr both left of their own accord regardless of whether or not they had work to do, he wasn’t so sure his aunt’s business would survive the waves of people who were moving on to newer things. Of course she could move Core-ward herself, but there were a number of complications that went along with that: more vigilant SPD patrols, greater competition, increased quality demands, and, most importantly, the necessity of taking care of her workers.
Both literally and figuratively, Cho Xiao’s workers were family to her and to her nephew. Jin knew his aunt would never leave any of them behind if she couldn’t be absolutely sure they would be able to take care of themselves.
He leaned against the railing with a sigh. He didn’t want things to change. He liked having his work separate from his kin here in No Town. He liked being able to retreat to this place where he didn’t have to prove himself anymore.
Suppressing a laugh at his own expense, he turned to go into the apartment. He was just as bad as Riyad, Ath’ran and Du’shan had always been about excluding people when it came to the nebulous “things Arcadian”. Of course, with only Riyad left at headquarters, that wasn’t much of a problem anymore. He still talked on the phone in rushed Arcadian at times, but there were no longer those impromptu little meetings in the kitchen or hallway to walk into and feel awkward about.
Bypassing his aunt’s collection of gaudy knick-knacks, lined up on shelves and in need of dusting, he made his way to the kitchen and began to pull the things he would need out of cupboards. Here, the buildings were short enough that the sun filtered in through genuine windows, and there was no need to turn the light on. It made him think of the apartment he had grown up in, but between Greg and the attacks and everything else that had happened in the last half year, Xifeng felt a million years away.
He tried to shake off his nostalgia as he began to work on the rangoons. No matter how much he wanted things to stay the same, they had already changed. There was no denying that. And there was no way to keep the changes from occurring. The best he could do was light incense and pray, and hopefully that would be enough.