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The Birthday

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AN: Just a reminder to pay attention to the numbering of these stories; this installment takes place between The Marksman and The Proposal. Also, because of the way my brain works, the general backstory for both Hei and Misaki that I’ve created is the same for both the Distractions and Office series. So if details seem to overlap, that’s why. I hope it doesn’t get confusing; it shouldn’t.


 

Hei was still shaking a light dusting of snow from his jacket when Misaki came out of the bedroom, brushing out her long hair.

“There you are,” she said, pausing in the hall. “I was starting to think you got lost on your way home - did your session with Haruko run long?”

“No,” he reassured her. His therapy appointment had ended right on time; they’d spent most of it talking about what Hei had planned for tonight, in fact. And what he was considering for the future. But it was too soon to tell Misaki about it. The future, anyway. Tonight was, well, tonight.

“I stopped by the store to pick up a few things for dinner.” Hanging his jacket on the hook by the door, he hefted the paper shopping bag and headed towards the kitchen.

“Dinner?”

As Misaki followed him in, he noted with a tinge of worry that she’d changed her clothing: instead of the sweatpants and long-sleeved shirt that she’d been wearing all morning, she now had on a pair of her dressier jeans and the blue cashmere turtleneck that he’d gotten her for Christmas. Had she made plans for tonight and forgotten to tell him?

Well, to be fair, he hadn’t told her his plans, either. He started unpacking the bag. “I thought I’d make something new.” 

“What?” Misaki asked, pulling out a butcher-wrapped packet. She read over the label. “Ooh, duck?”

Hei watched her eyes light up, and mentally counted to himself. Three, two

“Why…” Right on cue, her eyes narrowed. “Kanami told you.”

“Kanami told me,” Hei agreed, taking out the last of the ingredients. “On the condition that I not make a big deal out of it; so I’m not. I’m just making a nice dinner.”

He’d thought that she would be okay with that, at least. For all that she teased him about not being able to remember his birthday, she’d been extremely reluctant to tell him hers. The couple of times he’d asked, she would answer with a vague, “It’s not for a couple months still,” or “I don’t really do anything for my birthday anyway.” It didn’t surprise him that she wasn’t the type to want a huge party or even get together with more than one or two people, but he didn’t want to accidentally miss it and do nothing.

So, to his slight shame, he’d resorted to bribing an informant.

And that information had been expensive.

Misaki was still frowning, though she looked more pensive than upset.

“Did you have other plans?” he asked, gesturing to her outfit. “I can always make this another night.” The duck was ready to marinate now, but he supposed he could do it overnight instead, and set it out to dry while they were at work tomorrow.

She hesitated, biting her lip. “Actually, I always do the same thing on my birthday. I’m sorry I haven’t told you. It just felt too…awkward…to bring it up, I guess.”

“What is it?” Misaki was usually so frank and up front about everything; Hei had no idea what she would suddenly be so shy about.

“I go see my mom.”

Her mom? But she - and then it clicked in his brain. “Oh. Um.”

Misaki shrugged, absently gazing down at the ginger root that Hei had set on the counter. “Today’s the anniversary of her funeral. I go every year…say hello…tell her how my life is going.” She gave a soft sigh. “I guess that’s why I never really feel like celebrating.”

“Okay.” Unsure of what else to say, Hei reached over and stroked her back. “I’ll have dinner ready when you get back, then.”

She glanced up at him. “Actually…will you come with me?”

Hei blinked in surprise. “You want me to?” At her nod, he said, “Of course. Just let me get the marinade started, then I’ll shower and we can go.”

~~~~o~~~~

A light snow was still falling as they made the long walk to the cemetery. It was only two train stops away from their apartment, but Hei didn’t comment when Misaki turned past the station to head down the avenue instead. She simply buttoned her navy wool coat all the way to her throat and wrapped her gloved hand around Hei’s.

He was wearing his nicer coat as well. After spending his entire shower wondering what one was supposed to wear on a visit to a grave site, he’d decided to follow Misaki’s lead and put on a good pair of jeans and a heavy cable knit sweater. It was ivory-colored; Misaki always commented that it brought out the kindness in his eyes, but he chose it because it was the closest thing to white that he had. He didn’t know anything about Japanese funerals, and all he knew about Chinese ceremonies was that you wore white. It seemed the most appropriate choice; in any case, Misaki had smiled warmly when she saw him pull it on.

The temple where her mother was buried was small, tucked away in the heart of Shinjuku as it was. A little side gate led directly to a tree-lined courtyard that was packed tight with waist-high stone markers. Narrow paths slick with ice wound between them; Misaki gripped Hei’s hand a little more tightly as she led the way towards the far corner, where a barren wisteria arched over a cluster of markers. Except for the two of them, the graveyard was empty today.

Misaki stopped in front of the smallest of the group; even resting on top of its square base, the stone column didn’t even reach Hei’s knee. Dark with moisture from the snow, the characters spelling out Kirihara were clean and clear. A small stone cup, empty except for a little pile of snow, sat at the column’s base.

Hei stood silently while Misaki bent to brush the wet snow from the top of the marker. When she straightened, she pulled a small paper-wrapped package from her coat pocket. Hei watched as she opened the package and removed first a finger-length, carved wooden seahorse, which she placed on the patch that she just cleared. A bundle of incense sticks and a cigarette lighter were left in the package. Misaki took them out and crumpled the paper into a ball to stuff back into her pocket.

Then she crouched down and cleared the snow from the stone cup. The flakes came out tinged with soot, as if someone else had burned something there recently. Misaki ignored that, and stood her own incense in the cup. A few clicks of the lighter, however, produced nothing.

“Dammit,” Misaki muttered to herself, trying the lighter again, with no luck.

Hei slowly lowered himself to crouch beside her. “Do you mind if I…” he asked, holding out his hand, thumb and middle finger pinched together.

She gave him a relieved smile. “Please.”

Hei pulled off his glove - the Syndicate had provided him with gloves interwoven with a flexible metal alloy that allowed the conductance of electricity; these were simple leather and would scorch where a current passed through - and snapped his fingers against the incense. A spark ignited the fragrant bundle.

He replaced his glove. Then, holding hands once more, they stood together and watched the flicker of the small flame turn into a low smolder.

Misaki inhaled slowly. When she spoke, her breath hung frozen in the air to mingle with the fragrant incense.

“Hi Mom,” she said quietly. “It’s snowing this year. It hasn’t snowed today in a long time. The cemetery looks so pretty like this; you’d like it.”

Hei listened, surprised that Misaki was speaking out loud and wondering if it was for his benefit, or if she always spoke like this when she visited her mother. She talked to herself constantly at home, but never in public. Maybe everyone spoke aloud to the deceased. Hei had been to many cemeteries, for a variety of reasons. This was the first time that he was visiting in remembrance, and he still wasn’t sure of the protocol.

“I brought someone with me today,” Misaki continued, giving his hand a squeeze. “This is Hei. I told you all about him last year. Remember how much I wished that I could see him again, and wondered if he felt the same way? Well, he did. He came back, and we’re together now. And I wish - I wish you could meet him.”

There was a quaver in her voice now, and Hei was struggling to keep a hitch out of his own throat. He’d assumed that Misaki had asked him to come simply for support; he hadn’t expected her to include him, not in something so private, something that felt almost sacred.

“Dad - well, Dad’s coming around,” Misaki said. “You know how he is - he just needs to accept that there actually is one man in this world who’s good enough for his daughter.” She gave a wry smile; Hei suppressed a grimace. “But you’d love Hei. The two of you are a lot alike, I think.”

Misaki continued to talk, moving on to describe the challenges that she had faced at work in the past year and the insecurities she was still harboring about her position. Most of those details Hei hadn’t heard before. It wasn’t that she hid these things from him, he knew. She just didn’t always feel the need to discuss them.

As much as he tried to pay attention to her words, Hei couldn’t help but think about his own parents. He hadn’t been at their funeral, of course. He didn’t even know where their ashes had been interred. His father would probably have liked to be near the mountain lake and his parents, Hei thought; but Grandfather - Mother’s father - would have taken care of the burial arrangements. They were most likely in Xi’an, then. Maybe in the little shrine at the back of the house where Grandfather’s parents were, in those simple wooden boxes painted with garden scenes that Xing had liked to trace with her fingers.

They would be happy to be together regardless of where it was, Hei knew. And they would have wanted Xing with them, as well. For the first time since learning what had happened to his sister, Hei found himself wishing that she had left a body behind.

Proof that she was really gone. Proof that she had found something of her old self at last.

He could find a box for her with stars painted on the lid.

With a start, he realized that there might already be a box full of ashes for Xing in the family shrine. For himself too. The Syndicate had told the family that they were dead; had they provided remains as proof? Were there two strangers resting next to his parents?

That lie somehow seemed so much larger than a simple death certificate.

Maybe…maybe he should reach out to his family. So they would know at least that much of the truth.

Or was that lie too monumental to overcome?

Pressure on his hand brought him back to the present. The incense had almost burned down, he realized.

“I hope Dad had a good visit with you last week,” Misaki was saying. “Sometimes I wish he would come with me, instead of by himself; but I understand. It’s hard. Maybe it’s harder when there’s someone else with you, and you feel like you need to be stronger than you are, for them. I’m just glad I’m not alone today.”

Her voice broke on those last words. Hei let go of her hand and took a step behind her to wrap his arms around her waist instead. Misaki overlaid her hands on his and leaned against him. Together they watched the last of the incense sticks crumble into warm embers in the stone cup. Snow flakes hissed and melted where they landed.

“You know what hasn’t left my mind all day?”

It took him a long moment to realize that she was speaking to him, now. He rested his chin on her shoulder. “What?”

“Today I’m as old as she was when she fell sick. She always seemed…she was my mom. A grown-up, you know? But really…she was so young.”

Hei could feel the tears sliding down her cheeks, tracing down his own where their skin touched. He didn’t know what to say; if there was anything to say. Instead, he just pulled her closer.

“How old were your parents?” she asked.

The sky was getting darker, Hei thought; though it was hard to tell with all the clouds. “I don’t know,” he said at last. “Too young.”

“Life isn’t fair, is it.”

“No,” he agreed. “It isn’t.”