Author's Note: I've started to write out Hei's backstory in my work Into the Dark Night; I consider that a prequel for both the Distractions and Office series, so be sure to read that for more background on Hei's family and his life before the Syndicate!
"What do you think of this?" Misaki asked.
"Hm?" Hei didn't immediately turn from the television; one chef in the competition show was using a technique that he'd never seen before to fillet a fish, and he wanted to catch the whole process. Instead, he gave Misaki's knee a squeeze to let her know that he was in fact listening.
They were both camped out on their new sofa, Misaki comfortably ensconced in the corner with her laptop in her lap and her legs stretched out across Hei's lap.
They'd decided on the sofa together, something which Hei was still proud of himself for. After spending hours in half a dozen furniture stores, looking at dozens of more or less the same design, his interest had definitely started to flag. He wanted to be part of the decision, to do something so simple and normal together with Misaki, but he honestly didn't understand why she hadn't agreed on the first model they'd looked at. Hei had thought it was fine.
As Misaki and the salesman discussed the finer points of two sofas that were virtually identical - even the prices were close enough that that couldn't be used as the deciding factor - Hei wandered over to a bright yellow one across the aisle that had caught his eye and sat down. Sank down was more like it - the cushions were soft and deep.
It was by far the most comfortable sofa he'd tried out thus far. So comfortable, in fact, that he felt like he could take a nap right that moment. In a crowded public space, no less. Even better, he could easily imagine himself and Misaki spending each evening snuggled up together on it.
"You can't be serious."
Hei opened his eyes - when had he closed them? - to see Misaki gazing down at him, her arms folded.
"What? I like this one."
She frowned. "It looks awfully…soft. You know I like firm cushions."
"I know you like to deny yourself any reason to relax, so that you feel less guilty about working in your downtime."
She opened her mouth. Closed it again. "Sometimes I hate that you know me so well," she muttered at last; but Hei could see the smile just brushing her lips.
"Just try it." He patted the seat beside him. With obvious reluctance, Misaki sat.
"Oh. Wow. It is really comfy…" She leaned back against the cushions. "But I'd never be able to get any work done like this."
"You usually end up sitting on the floor anyway."
She pursed her lips and ran her hand along the edge of the seat cushion, her ring glittering in the bright lights of the store. "That's true. This color is awful, though."
Hei actually kind of liked it. It was…cheerful. He'd never had a home that looked as if its occupants were happy to live there. Not since he'd left Xi'an, anyway.
Still, he knew better than to push his luck. Compromise, as his therapist would tell him. "I'm sure it comes in other colors," he said.
It did, in fact, come in a charcoal fabric that Misaki fell in love with; and a few days later, it was delivered to their apartment.
"Hei." Misaki nudged him with her foot.
"Hm?" Hei said again, turning down the volume of the TV. He didn't have a knife exactly like the one the chef was using, but he did have something that might work…
Misaki had turned her laptop so that screen was facing him. On the display was a lush garden with sculpted paths meandering through beds of colorful flowers.
Hei frowned in confusion. "A temple? I thought you were working on your proposal for the police summit."
"I was - then I decided it's as good as it's going to get, considering I have to present it at the retreat tomorrow. Now I'm working on your proposal." She playfully poked his ribs with her toe.
He caught her foot, giving it a gentle squeeze. "Oh. For the ceremony, you mean? Sure; it's pretty."
"Yeah, it is; especially in June. My mom used to take me to this one on all the holidays."
It wasn't the same place where her mother's ashes had been interred, Hei could tell. For a moment he wondered why Misaki wouldn't want to go to that temple, the way she visited every year and talked as if her mother could hear her; but then he was pretty sure he knew why.
"It looks perfect," he said. "I wish your mom could be here, to see you get married."
Misaki closed her laptop with a sigh; setting it on the coffee table, she curled up next to Hei. "Yeah," she said. "Me too."
He wrapped his arm around her shoulders and pulled her in close.
They sat like that for a long moment, Hei simply enjoying being close to her, breathing in the scent of her. Then she said, "June is still okay with you, right?"
He kissed her cheek. "Of course. You know I wouldn't mind if we stayed engaged for a year or two, if that's what you want. Or I'd go to the courthouse with you tomorrow - I'd drag a justice out of bed at knife point tonight if you said you didn't want to wait. June is fine."
Misaki snorted. "Kidnapping a government official for a midnight elopement sort of defeats the purpose of having a traditional ceremony - which was your idea, remember? I just meant…" she trailed off, seeming to grasp for words. "It's already March. June doesn't give you that much time to call your family to invite them, and still give them time to plan a trip out here, if that's what they want to do."
The thought of reaching out to the family he'd left behind in Xi'an after Xing had killed their parents no longer set him on the verge of a panic attack - he'd been spending a lot of time thinking about it lately, partly to inure himself to the fear, and partly because, well, the more he thought about it, the more he began to see a way forward to contacting them.
He knew Misaki's opinion - a wedding was the perfect reason to do it. That felt too awkward to Hei though. What was he supposed to do, send them an invitation that said Please travel to a foreign country for my wedding - and PS I'm not dead? But then how was he supposed to talk to them without mentioning his engagement?
"I don't know yet," he confessed. "And I don't think I'll be able to decide any time soon. We might as well make plans without worrying about that."
"Nothing." She paused; Hei waited. "It's just, I know how important your family is to you, and how much you want to see them again; so I know you're going to contact them eventually regardless of how freaked out it makes you feel. It's just a matter of when. So I think you might as well save yourself all that time and worry, and just do it now."
Hei smiled. Misaki would always take the most practical approach to a problem, no matter what it was; she was much more like a contractor in that sense than he ever was. "Still…I don't think I can. Not yet." Not until that feeling of dread had fully left the pit of his stomach.
"Alright. There's no need to rush into the decision, if you're not comfortable with it yet; let's stick with June."
If Hei didn't already love her, he would for that alone. "Actually, I was thinking…maybe we could go visit Xi'an after the wedding. Like a honeymoon - or maybe a vacation, later on. I'd like you to see the city."
"And maybe see if any of your family are still in the area, without being committed to letting them know we are?" She arched an eyebrow. "So, a recon mission."
Hei opened his mouth, then closed it again. ""You know me too well," he admitted at last.
Misaki laughed and snuggled closer. "Well I should hope so. I'd like to see the place where you grew up, even if we don't meet your family. Could we go to that town in the mountains - what was its name?"
"Zhang jia ping," Misaki repeated carefully. She'd been working hard on her Mandarin in the last few months; she could mostly understand what Hei said to her now, if he spoke slowly. Understanding her was still mostly guesswork on his part; her accent needed a lot of work. Still, he was proud of her for the progress she'd made.
"Yeah, we could go there. I don't know if my dad's house is still there…if it stayed in the family or not. He didn't have any living relatives, so I guess it passed to Mom's family? We can visit the lake at least."
He'd like that more than seeing Xi'an, he thought. It would be far more painful - so many of his childhood memories were tied too tightly to that place - but they'd been happy memories. There was a peace there in the woods by the lake that he'd never known anywhere else. He'd love for Misaki to experience it.
Assuming everything was still the same as it had been twelve years ago, of course.
"Is that where you got this?" Misaki reached up and lightly touched the small, faint scar just above his left eyebrow, the tip of which nearly met the longer, still-raw one from the night he'd proposed to her. He'd only gotten the stitches from that out a few days ago. "You said it was from a 'childhood idiocy'."
She laughed, but there was a slight edge to it now. "I asked you about it at the hospital - guess you lost that question to the concussion."
"Oh. Yeah. I mean, yeah I don't remember you asking - but also, yeah, I was a total idiot when I was ten. But it was Jiang's fault."
Hei nodded, a smile forming on his lips from the memory. "We'd saved a bunch of those little baozhu - um, firecrackers from the New Year's festivals to shoot off at the lake that spring. Well, 'shoot off' isn't right, exactly…"
The four of them - Hei, Xing, and their cousins Jiang and Jiao-tu - had told their parents that they were going to go explore the sunny woods for a while before dinner. Father, Grandfather, and Uncle were all fishing down at the lake, which left Aunt and Grandmother fret over the possibility of snakes in the rocks until Mother waved the kids off with a laugh and a strict admonition to be back before dark and not do anything too stupid - that last with a significant look at both boys.
"And watch out for your sister, Tian," she added. For in that time, he had been a completely different person, still deserving of the name that his parents had given him.
"I will!" Tian always watched out for Xing; Mother didn't need to ask.
Tian and Jiang had headed straight for the small clearing at the top of a hill about a half mile behind the house that they had discovered the previous year. Xing and Jiao-tu followed, Xing skipping happily and picking small white flowers along the way, Jiao-tu tripping over just about every small stone or root she came across.
"Okay, how many did everyone save from the festival?" Jiang asked them all once they'd reached the clearing. A huge pine had stood there once; some storm or other had thrown it down, leaving a rotting log a few feet away from a large pit where the rootball had been. Aside from the dead tree, the clearing was bare of all but grass and weeds.
Jiang pulled two strands of baozhu, little red bamboo cylinders tied on either side of central string, from his pockets and dropped them on the log. "Tian, what about you?"
Tian set down his small rucksack and pulled out six strands, setting them next to Jiang's.
His cousin gave a low whistle. "How'd you manage to get so many? Grandfather only gave us three each!"
Tian shrugged. "Mom's hospital had a lunchtime festival for the patients that we went to. They were giving all the kids one…so I just got back in line a couple times and pretended I hadn't gotten one yet. It was easy."
"Tian, that's lying!" Jiao-tu said, pushing her plastic-framed glasses up the bridge of her nose.
"I would have said I already got one if they asked," Tian protested, though he'd felt guilty at the time - and still did, especially with his cousin's censure. It was weird to be chided by someone a foot shorter than him and almost as young as his sister. "They just never did."
Jiang, however, laughed and punched him in the shoulder. "You could go work for the mafia or something!"
Tian punched him back, a littler harder. "What would I do in the mafia? They break people's legs and kill them!"
"Yeah, but they steal shit, too, don't they - like in the movies. You could break just a few legs, maybe. Like this -"
Jiang aimed a sharp kick at his knee, but Tian had anticipated and blocked with the side of his calf. Jiang used that moment of distraction to shoot at punch at his face, which Tian countered with his own jab followed by a roundhouse kick. His cousin blocked both, crossing both wrists to fend off the foot strike then cutting in an open-palm jab straight at Tian's sternum.
Tian toppled over backwards; the air whooshed out of his lungs as he landed hard on the packed dirt of the clearing.
"Brother, are you alright?" Xing was at his side at once.
"He's fine," Jiang said, reaching down a hand to help Tian up.
"Yeah, don't worry, Xing, I'm fine." Tian grasped Jiang's hand; then right as his cousin shifted his balance to his rear leg to take his weight, he swung his own leg around in an arching curve that caught Jiang just behind the ankle.
With a loud oof! Jiang crashed to the ground beside Tian. "Dog!" he growled, but he was laughing. Tian grinned.
"Are you guys done yet?" Jiao-tu asked loudly with a roll of her eyes. "Aunt An said we had to be back before it gets dark - what if we get lost out here!"
"I never get lost," Tian assured her as he and Jiang clasped arms in unspoken agreement not to cheat and helped each other up.
"Stop whining and show us how many you got," Jiang said, with more than a touch of impatience.
"Here." Jiao-tu placed a single string of baozhu on the pile.
Jiang frowned at her. "Just one?"
"I tried to hide another one in my pocket, but Grandfather looked at me!"
"So he would have asked why I was hiding it!"
"Then just take it back out and try again when - fine, never mind." Jiang heaved a dramatic sigh. "I guess it's better than none. Xing?"
"None," Xing piped unabashedly from her perch on the log, where she was braiding her flowers into a daisy chain.
Jiang gaped. "None? Why not?"
"It was more fun to shoot them off on New Year's; I like the sound they make."
"I can't believe this - we've been planning this for months! Even Jiao-tu managed one!"
"It's alright," Tian interjected. "The extra that I got make up for both Xing and Jiao-tu."
"Yeah, maybe," Jiang said. "I just hope it's enough. Where's the tube?"
Tian withdrew from the rucksack the foot-long piece of PVC pipe that he'd scrounged from a construction site on the way to school . It was topped with an upside-down funnel that Jiang had pulled out of a trash pile. The two of them together had painted it red and made a clay plug with a long kite string fuse.
Jiao-tu let out a startled gasp and pointed. "What is that? You said we were just going to set them off!"
"We are setting them off," Jiang told her. "Inside the rocket."
The two boys set to work filling their makeshift rocket with the individual baozhu canisters cut from the strands, while Xing watched with curiosity and Jiao-tu fretted.
"You have no idea what you're doing, do you - rockets aren't easy to make, you know! "
"Think we can fit one more in?"
"Might as well try; it doesn't matter if it gets squished, does it?"
"Guys, we're going to get in so much trouble! What if Dad finds out?"
"Hey, the plug won't stay in."
"Huh, it must've shrunk after it dried - maybe we can seal it with something."
"I don't know -"
"What if Grandfather finds out?"
That made both Tian and Jiang pause. They exchanged a worried look, then glanced at Jiao-tu's frowning face.
"Fireworks aren't illegal…" Tian began at the same time Jiang said, "He won't find out if you don't tell him!"
"I won't tell," Xing said brightly. "What color will it be when it explodes?"
Tian was grateful for the distracting question; the less he thought about the consequences, the less he had to worry about it. "White, the same as the baozhu. Sap!"
His cousin gave him a blank look. "Sap?"
Tian pointed at a pine just outside the clearing, where a ball of sap had formed above a branch about eight feet off the ground. "We can use that on the seal! I'll get it."
"No I'll get it!"
"I saw it first!"
The two boys raced to the tree. Jiang was a much better sprinter than Tian, but being of stockier build, had a much shorter reach. Tian sprang up and caught the lowest branch while Jiang fell back to the forest floor with a loud oof. From there it was an easy shimmy up to the branch with the sap. Tian levered off the entire bolus and dropped it down to Jiang.
"Ugh, it's all over my hands."
"That just means it'll stick!" Tian swung down to the ground, landing lightly on the balls of his feet. The two of them returned to the dead log to find Jiao-tu waiting, her hands on her hips.
"What if it explodes?"
"It's supposed to, dummy," Jiang said with a roll of his eyes. "It's a rocket. Go make yourself useful and find a stick to prop it up with."
Despite her continued mutterings, Jiao-tu did just that, coming back with a large forked stick that the rocket fit into perfectly. The sap did the trick of sealing the plug; Tian and Jiang wedged the contraption into the ground at the edge of the pit and stood back to admire the finished product.
"How high do you think it'll go?" Jiang asked.
Tian had no idea. "A thousand feet?"
"What if it hits someone?" Xing asked, worry blooming across her face.
"It won't. It'll go straight up then explode."
"Just like the fireworks at New Year's," Jiang told her. "Get behind the log, you two."
As Xing and Jiao-tu scrambled behind the fallen tree, Jiang pulled a matchbook from his pocket and struck a match. A tiny flame flared into life. "Okay, here goes," he said, a note of nervousness in his voice for the first time. Tian's blood was racing as Jiang bent down and lit the fuse. "Go!"
The two boys dove behind the log, where Jiao-tu was huddled with her hands over her ears and her eyes squeezed shut. Tian looked frantically for his sister - then spotted her peeping around the roots of the tree.
"Xing, get back!" He caught her by the ankle and dragged her behind cover.
"I want to watch…"
"You'll hear it go off, then we'll see it shoot up in the sky," Tian told her. "Just wait."
After what felt five whole minutes had gone by, Tian said, "Maybe we should have taken the powder of the cannisters?" They'd filled the pipe with the fuses still attached to most of the baozhu, but maybe that hadn't been enough.
"I bet the fuse went out, dammit." Jiang said. "We should have made it shorter."
Tian slowly rose up on his knees to peer over the log. "Yeah, but we needed time to get under cover. Hang on, I don't see the fuse…"
Jiang joined him, looking out cautiously. "It must -"
Jiao-tu shrieked; both boys dropped to the ground like stones, Tian's heart in his throat, his cheek pressed into the dirt. Any second he expected to hear the rocket whizzing past directly over his head.
There wasn't another sound except for a faint sizzling. Tian caught Jiang's eye; he nodded, and slowly they both peeked over the top of the log again. The red PVC pipe had fallen over on its makeshift stand, but it was still intact. The fuse must have only reached a couple of the little firecrackers; they definitely should have emptied them out.
Tian turned to Jiang; they grinned at each other in relief. "Lucky we -"
White light burst in front of Tian's eyes; he stumbled backwards in panic as something sharp stung his forehead. Landing hard on his rear, he blinked up at a cloudless blue sky. His ears were ringing - no, that was Jiao-tu screaming again. Then Jiang's voice cut through the noise. "Shit, I'm on fire! I'm on fire!"
Tian sat up straight, wiping the stinging sweat from his eye to see his cousin jumping up and down, swatting at a tiny smoking patch on his t-shirt. Reacting instinctively, Tian threw himself forward onto his palms and swept his leg out in front of him, catching Jiang right below the back of the knees. The sweep knocked Jiang flat on his back; before he could react, Tian had dumped a pile of dirt over the smoking spot on his chest and pressed down hard.
"Is it out?" Tian managed, suddenly out of breath.
"I think so," Jiang said shakily. "It doesn't hurt." He sat up, brushing the dirt away to reveal a cigarette-butt-sized hole in his t-shirt; the skin beneath didn't look too raw.
Tian sighed in relief, wiping more wetness from his forehead, then spotted his sister peering with interest over the top of the log. "Xing, are you -"
"Shit, man, what happened to your face?"
"What?" Tian turned; Jiang was staring at him open-mouthed. Xing turned as well and gasped.
"Brother, your eye!" She darted to his side, squinted at his face for a moment, then grabbed his rucksack and rummaged until she found the white handkerchief that he always carried for her.
"Xing, that's -" he began, but she had already pressed it to his face and was wiping away what he - looking the red smears on the back of his hand - realized must be blood.
"I'm getting Dad!"
"No!" Jiang and Tian both shouted together, but Jiao-tu was already sprinting down the path like a startled rabbit.
"Dammit," Jiang muttered, plucking absently at the hole in his shirt. He heaved a sigh. "What's our story?"
"I don't think we have one."
"An angry squirrel chucked acorns at us and hit you in the head?"
Tian laughed, taking the bloodied handkerchief from Xing so that he could put pressure on it and try to stop the bleeding; but his heart was sinking. "We can try, but I really don't think your dad will believe that. My dad might pretend to, at least."
"Why didn't 'Tu run to get your dad," Jiang grumbled.
It wasn't just Uncle that Jiao-tu brought back with her, however.
Tian had tied the handkerchief around his head to keep it in place while he, Jiang, and Xing scouted for the still-smoking pieces of the exploded rocket; Jiang's comment that Tian looked like a battle-wounded Shaolin monk led to a heated sword - well, stick - fight to Xing's cheers. Jiang had just disarmed Tian and knocked him to his back when Jiao-tu and the entire, panicked family crested the hill.
Even now Hei could still remember that feeling of utter, impending doom at the sight of his parents' horrified faces, while Grandfather took in the whole scene with a single, silent sweep of his gaze.
"I wish I could say that I can't believe how stupid you were," Misaki said, "but somehow, I do believe it."
She laughed, sending a warm tingle through his belly. "Did you get into much trouble?"
"Actually, no. My mom stitched my cut that night and made sure I knew what an idiot I was, but no one punished us, not even Uncle. The next day Grandfather told us to come down to the lake with him, and we were sure we were in huge trouble then; but he didn't say a word. He had a bag full of matchbooks and bottlecaps; he showed us how to grind up the match heads, fill the bottlecaps with the powder and a short fuse, and crimp them shut with a pair of pliers. We spent all morning making them, and all afternoon throwing them out over the lake to pop."
Hei could almost still smell that day, the acrid scent of sulfur from the matches mingling with the sweet tobacco smoke from Grandfather's pipe. They'd stayed long into the evening, lighting and throwing the tiny crackers out across the orange and pink water at dusk, while Grandfather watched silently from his seat on an old stump, the sunset reflecting almost golden off the curve of his bald head.
Years later, Hei was regularly making those same tiny explosives - this time using re-purposed bullet cartridges instead of bottlecaps, with a measured layer of baking soda to delay the fuse - to divert his enemies' attention away from his location and allow him to complete his missions unseen.
Misaki squeezed his hand, somehow detecting his abrupt change of mood. "So what are your plans for tomorrow?"
Tomorrow. March sixteenth. Hei took a deep breath. "I think I'll make a big batch of tangyuan. That was one of Xing's favorite foods; Mother always made it for her birthday. I'll take it down to the tunnel entrance to the Gate."
He'd decided against going to the Shrine of the Gate. While most people used that altar to pay their respects to loved ones lost after Hell's Gate had appeared, there was small but not minor contingent who worshiped there. The very thought turned Hei's stomach. The tunnel entrance where he and his team had followed Wei had been the first step on the road to seeing Xing again, however briefly. That felt like the more appropriate place to go to remember her.
Misaki squeezed his hand again. "That sounds perfect. Are you…taking the whole batch of tangyuan?"
"You mean, will I leave some for you? Even though I just made you a huge plate for the lunar new year?"
"I was just - I mean, I wasn't sure how much you were planning on making…"
Hei pulled her into his lap so that he could wrap his arms around her, resting his chin on her shoulder. "Don't worry; I'm making a double batch."
Misaki laughed and shifted so that she was straddling him; she threaded her fingers through his hair. "I knew there was a reason I love you. Hey, that wushu competition is tomorrow night, right? Are you still going?"
"Yeah, if I don't spend too much time by the Gate. It'll be…strange, seeing wushu again."
Hei hadn't been to a competition since before he'd left home; in fact he'd been competing himself at that last one. He'd kept up his own training in the basics over the years, of course, as well as learning a number of other styles, but he hadn't seen real wushu the way that his grandfather had taught it in a dozen years. The thought tied his stomach knots almost as tightly as the idea of calling Grandfather did. Saitou had gotten tickets for both him and Kouno, though, and Hei hadn't been able to say no.
Misaki kissed him. "You'll be fine; I'm sure you'll end up enjoying it," she said; then, yawning widely, added, "I need to finish packing; that flight tomorrow is early."
"You shouldn't have put it off so late."
"There's still some time before bed to -"
"No?" Misaki arched an eyebrow.
Hei slid his hands down from her waist to her ass and squeezed gently. "No. I'm about to not see you for two days and two nights." He took her lips in his, savoring the warmth of them. "Which means…" He began trailing kisses down her jaw, "that I'm not letting go of you…" He reached her neck and nibbled, eliciting a long, low moan. "Until I put you on that plane in the morning."
"Wait - stop!" Misaki gasped out.
Hei abruptly pulled back in alarm. "What's wrong?"
She punched his shoulder. "Not on the new sofa! Take me to the bedroom."
He smiled and rose with her in his arms, only too happy to oblige.