Author's Note

This is the back story for Hei and Amber that's been my head-canon for a while, and what I had in mind when I wrote both One Hour at a Time and Distractions - though you don't have to have read either of those to read this, since this is the prequel.

Before jumping into the first chapter, I want to make a couple of notes.

Source material: There is not a lot of information about the first appearance of the Gates or the conflict in South America given to us in the show, which is part of what makes the back story so fascinating. In writing this story, I'm taking what details I can pick up from the anime and using them in a way that I feel best tells a coherent story. I should note here that I don't consider the manga, OVAs, or season 2 to be canon, so whatever details those give us, I'm ignoring (no big loss). Because this piece covers the five-year span between the first appearance of the Gates and the disaster at Heaven's Gate, there will be some big time jumps here and there, and (fair warning, shippers), it will be a while before Amber and Hei actually meet.

Accuracy: My philosophy in both reading and writing is that in order to be believable, a story or a character has to be realistic. That applies to fantasy and science fiction just as much as it does to a crime drama or a romance. So, I will try to describe the supernatural events as I would imagine they might actually happen, given the real constraints of physics and reality. This means that you might not see some scenes that you are expecting, because I don't think that they could literally happen, and the show may or may not have meant them to be literal in the first place. Hopefully, the picture that I paint will be satisfactory and believable. Basically, leave your expectations for this story at the door...

Names: The English spelling of Hei's sister's name in the anime is "Pai". I'm pretty sure that her name is intended to be the Chinese word for "white", the official pinyin spelling of which is "Bai", so that is the spelling that I will be going with. We know from the final episode that her real name is "Xing", which means "star". Xing's age is 9 at the start of the story.

We don't know Hei's real name. I chose the name "Tian" for him, for a few reasons. 1) "Tian" means "sky" or "heaven", which is a good complement to "star". 2) The name "sky" has connotations of openness, innocence, and honesty, which fits his pre-Hei character. 3) I like the way it sounds in English. And 4), my favorite reason, I'm not going to elaborate on here, though if you've read Distractions (Ch. 24), you've already seen it. Tian is 12.

(As Dear4Life pointed out to me previously, another writer also used "Tian" for Hei's name - great minds think alike =) That author was desy in the story DTB: When the stars vanished. Check it out if you haven't already - it's good, though unfinished.)

And of course, we know nothing about Amber's back story, so I made it up whole-cloth. I want her to be an actual, three-dimensional person before she becomes a contractor, and her back story will play into her overall character arc. She is 34 at the start.

Year: 1998.

Structure: I will try to balance out the Hei chapters with the Amber chapters. But because I'm writing the events chronologically, there will be times where you'll get, say, three Hei chapters in a row and no Amber, or vice versa, especially in the first half of the story. After that, things should even out more.

Disclaimer: I do not own DtB. I do claim ownership of Tian, Xing, Brigid, all my OCs, and everything that happens before the appearance of Hell's Gate.

...I think that's everything. As always, thanks for reading, and please leave me your thoughts and comments in the reviews!

/News/Astronomy/30.05.98: Extreme activity observed on the surface of the Sun. This year marks the peak, or "solar maximum", of the eleven-year solar cycle. Increased occurrences of sunspots, the dark blotches on the photosphere that result from local changes in magnetic pressure, are to be expected during every solar maximum period. This year there is an unprecedented number of sunspots clustered around a single location on the Sun's surface.

Dr. Alford, a heliophysicist at NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, assures us that this is nothing too far out of the ordinary.

"It is normal for sunspots to form in the higher latitudes of the Sun at the beginning of the solar cycle," she says, "and then migrate towards the equator as the solar maximum approaches. It is strange to see so many, and all grouped together, almost like a giant eyeball. It's a little creepy - but nothing to be concerned about."

The latter half of this century has seen much higher than average levels of sunspots; the last period in which the Sun was this active was over 8,000 years ago./

"Brother, look over here!"

"Xing, wait!" But his little sister was too excited to wait. Tian felt a moment of panic as Xing's hand slipped from his sweaty grasp and she disappeared into the crowd.

It was a sweltering day by the river, yet that hadn't stopped what seemed like most of the city of Xi'an from turning out for the final day of the Dragon Boat Festival. The banks of the Bahe River were overgrown with colorful vendor stalls and the streets were packed with throngs of people. It was into one of these stalls that Xing had vanished; Tian spied her bright red and gold costume in the shadowy interior with a sigh of relief.

"Don't run away like that, you could get lost," he chided her.

Xing hardly seemed to hear him. "Sorry, Brother, but look! Aren't they pretty?"

Tian looked around the stall. The temporary plywood walls displayed beautifully illustrated fans; brightly colored kites cut in the shapes of fantastical animals - dragons, tigers, peacocks - hung gracefully from the ceiling. Painted ceramic opera masks smiled (or frowned) up at them from cloth-covered tables.

"I wish I hadn't bought that scarf now," Xing said, looking up at a framed ink drawing of Bai Suzhen, the White Snake Lady.

"You have a poster of that at home," Tian reminded her. "Anyway, you didn't have enough money to buy anything here, even if you hadn't gotten the scarf."

His sister sighed, but didn't turn to leave the shop. She was going to be miserable for the rest of the afternoon if she didn't walk out with something from this stall, Tian could tell. He scanned the tables until he saw a bin at the back. Xing followed him over to it.

"Ooh!" she exclaimed. The bin was full of cheap decorations and party favors from the past new year's celebrations. Most of the items depicted the Tiger, the year they were just halfway through. It was the year that Tian had been born in; hence, this entire year was supposed to be unlucky for him, but he didn't believe in superstitions like that. His cousin did though, so he'd hung a red-tasseled medallion in his bedroom window to keep her from fretting. Red kept the evil spirits at bay. Xing was merely fascinated by the celebrations and seeing each new zodiac animal. Each year she asked when it would be her turn, the year of the Snake; the unlucky aspect of it didn't seem to frighten her at all.

"Look!" She'd been digging through the bin, and now pulled out a woven, red string bracelet with a little green plastic snake charm hanging from it. "It's so cute!"

Tian smiled; the fake-jade charm wasn't the cartoonish character you sometimes saw, but was molded into the realistic form of a viper about to strike. Only Xing would find it cute.

He looked at the price. "Only twenty-five yuan."

Xing's face fell. "I don't have that much."

"I do, I think." Tian dug around in the left pocket of his wushu uniform and pulled out a few bills; his right pocket held the money that their mother had given them to buy a snack - before Xing had gotten sidetracked. He counted it out. "Fifty-two yuan."

It was as if a switch had been flipped in Xing's attitude. "Is that enough?" she asked, eyes brightening.

Tian sighed patiently. "Xing, you learned how to add money ages ago."

His sister's mouth moved silently as she did the math in her head. "It's enough for two!" she exclaimed at last, then immediately began digging through the bin again. "Oh...I can't find any tigers. But look, there's Jiang's and 'Tu's signs!"

"Give me Jiao-tu's," he told her. Xing handed him the snake and another bracelet, one that had a jade rabbit charm. "Not that one," Tian said, and dug around in the bin himself. He found what he was looking for at the very bottom; then he paid for the two bracelets and helped Xing tie hers around her wrist. She beamed at it.

"Can we go eat now?" Tian asked. His stomach had been rumbling steadily for the past ten minutes.

"Yeah, let's go find Jiang and 'Tu!" Xing darted out the stall ahead of him, and they picked their way through the crowd once again.


Tian thought that he must have been waiting in line for almost an hour by the time he reached the front. The bills that he handed over to the man in the stall were damp with the sweat from his hands.

"Change," the man grunted, dropping a few coins on the counter. He turned his back on the boy briefly; when he faced him again, there were two ice cream cones in his hands. "Here ya go - enjoy. Next!"

Tian scooted out of the line with the two cones, over to the side of the stall where Xing was waiting. His sister was bouncing on the balls of her feet, hands clasped in eager anticipation. With the little red cap perched on top of her short black hair, she looked like one of those trained dancing monkeys.

"Careful, don't spill any on your costume," he told her, and handed over the vanilla cone.

"I won't," Xing promised. She accepted the cone, and Tian smiled as she took one tiny lick. He had no doubt that she'd be cautious; she'd taken extra care of her costume all day.

"It'll melt if you don't eat it faster," he said.

"I don't want my brain to freeze, that hurts."

Tian was about to take a taste of his own green tea flavor cone when a shove from behind sent him sprawling. The ice cream splattered onto the dirt in front of him.

"Watch where you're standing, dweeb," a mocking voice called down at him. Tian looked up; three boys in orange wushu uniforms stood grinning down at him. Honglian and his friends; no surprise there.

"Brother!" Xing gasped. She turned on the older boys. "Leave him alone, you meanies!"

They laughed. "Maybe you should let your baby sister do all your fighting for you," Honglian said.

Tian pushed himself up into a sitting position and dusted the dirt from his hands. "Yeah, maybe," he said with a half-hearted laugh, rubbing the back of his head in embarrassment.

Honglian stepped forward; Tian tensed, preparing to dodge a kick. But one of the other boys tapped Honglian's shoulder and gestured off to the side. "See you around, dweeb," Honglian said, and the three orange-clad boys moved off into the crowd.

A moment later a boy in a black wushu uniform matching Tian's appeared. "Those dog farts," Jiang said, glaring after Honglian. "Are you alright?" He held out his hand, but Tian didn't take it.

"I can get up by myself," he said. His uniform was covered in dirt. He got to his feet and dusted it off as best he could.

Jiang frowned at him. "They only pick on you because they know you won't fight back. Come on, let's go after them - two of us and three of them, that's close enough to even." If the bully had been on his own, Tian didn't doubt that Jiang would have run after him and picked a fight. He'd probably even win it; Honglian was older and bigger, but Jiang was a better fighter.

"Nah, it's alright. We have to take the girls over to the dance stage soon anyway." Tian looked down at the dirty, rapidly melting ice cream. He didn't have enough money left for another, and he was still starving.

"Sometimes I can't believe we're related," Jiang muttered, but Tian ignored him. His cousin was always saying things like that, but he never meant them.

Xing tugged at Tian's sleeve. "Here," she said when he looked at her. She was holding out her ice cream cone.

"That's yours."

"I know. But yours fell, and you wanted ice cream more than me."

Tian smiled at her. Xing had been begging for ice cream all afternoon. "I'll ask Mom for more money later. Better finish that before you have to go dance."

Xing gave him a sad look, but started eating again.

"Jiang, where'd you go?" an anguished wail cut through the noise of the crowd.

Jiang rolled his eyes. "Over here, dummy!" he shouted. A moment later, a little girl in a red tunic like Xing's pushed her way through the crowd to where they were still standing by the ice cream stall. There was a dark smear across the front of her costume, obscuring the scrolling gold pattern.

"What did you do?" Jiang asked his sister.

Jiao-tu sniffed. "I tripped and spilled my drink. Now everyone is going to stare at me."

"Can't even walk right - maybe you should try hopping instead, Little Rabbit."

Jiao-tu slugged her brother's shoulder as hard as she could - but considering that she was two years younger than him and no bigger than Xing, who was younger still, the punch had little effect. "Don't call me that, stupid! I'm not a rabbit, I'm a dragon!"

Jiang just rolled his eyes again. "If you say so."

Tian tried to hide a smile. "Jiao-tu, maybe if you wore your glasses, you wouldn't trip so much."

"I hate my glasses." She had that scowl on her face that meant that nothing anyone said was going to cheer her up.

"You could take off your tunic and just wear the white dress," Xing suggested. "Then no one would know you ruined it."

Jiao-tu crossed her arms, and there were tears in her eyes threatening to fall. "I'd still look different from everyone else."

"Here, Brother." Xing pushed her half-eaten ice cream cone at Tian. He took it in surprise; the melting ice cream ran over his fingers. Then his sister pulled her tunic over her head, revealing the plain white dress beneath.

"There," she told her cousin. "Now you won't look different from me."

Jiao-tu sniffed and rubbed at her nose. "Really?"

"Sure. We'll tell Miss Fa we forgot them, she won't mind," Xing said.

"You don't think we'll get in trouble?"

"'Course not, it'll be okay!" Xing sounded confident, but Tian wasn't so sure that the girls' teacher would let two of her students on stage without their costumes. But he didn't say anything; Xing's assurances were at the very least preventing their cousin from bursting into tears.

Alright," Jiao-tu said, the beginnings of a smile creeping onto her face at last. She pulled off her soiled tunic and held it away from herself, as if the stain would leap from the red fabric onto the white if it got too close. How she'd managed to keep from staining the dress in the first place, Tian had no idea.

Jiang put out an impatient hand. "Give them to me," he said as if it was the most trying task in the world. "I'll hold them until you're done."

The girls passed over their crimson costumes; Xing grabbed Jiao-tu's hand and led her away. "Come on, we're going to be late if we don't hurry!"

"Xing, your ice cream is melting!" Tian called after his sister.

She gave him a bright smile. "You should finish it fast then!"

Jiao-tu was smiling again as they disappeared into the crowd.

Tian sighed in exasperation. Still, if she wasn't going to eat it, he shouldn't let it go to waste.

The ice cream was mercifully cool in his mouth. They'd been at the festival all day; there was just so much to see and do. He and Jiang had performed in the wushu competition in the morning - Jiang had won yet another award in the sanda sparring round, and Tian had nearly placed with his taolu routine. Then it had been a lunch of traditional dumplings and a full afternoon of visiting all the different souvenir stands and vendor stalls. A famous drum team was playing the festival, and they'd managed to see most of it before Tian's stomach had started growling so loudly that everyone in the vicinity could hear it over the drums. His mother had then given them all money to go find snacks before the girls' dance performance. The ice cream wasn't exactly filling, but it was better than nothing.

"You really should be nicer to your sister," Tian said as he and Jiang followed behind the girls.

Jiang snorted. "But she's so annoying. You're lucky, you got the nice one for your sister."

"Maybe she's nice because I'm nice to her first?"

Jiang aimed a punch at Tian's shoulder, but he dodged it, laughing.

"The Little Rabbit was born annoying. Anyway, she knows I'm only joking with her." Jiang frowned a little, then called up ahead to his sister, "Tu! You know I'm only teasing you, right?"

Jiao-tu looked over her shoulder and stuck out her tongue.


The dance performances were being held on a small stage out of the way of the major events, but had still drawn a moderate crowd. Xing and Jiao-tu disappeared around the back where the performers were lining up.

"How are we going to find everyone?" Tian wondered out loud.

Jiang shrugged. "Just look around, I guess."

They pushed their way through the clusters of people, Jiang occasionally standing up on his toes in a vain attempt to peer over a sea of black-haired heads. Tian scanned the crowd along with his cousin. He caught a glimpse of bright orange wushu uniforms and flinched instinctively; but a second look proved that it wasn't Honglian or his friends. Not that they would try anything with Jiang around.

"Look, there's your dad!"

Tian followed his cousin's pointing finger; his father was a couple of inches taller than the average person in the crowd and was easy to spot. Li Xinkun's children had inherited his height. Though younger by a few months, Tian had always been taller than Jiang, and Xing was already the same height as Jiao-tu, who was Xing's elder by one year.

The rest of the family was there as well: Tian's mother, Jiang's parents, and their grandparents, waiting for the performance to start. Grandfather was smoking his pipe, the smoke forming a sweet, spicy cloud around him. Tian settled into a place in front of his mother. Though only twelve years old, he already came up to her shoulder.

"There you are, we were getting worried!" Mother said, ruffling his hair. She laughed softly when Tian tried to push her hand away and flatten his hair again. "Are the girls where they need to be?"

Tian nodded and started to answer, when his aunt said, "Jiang, what's this? Why do you have your sister's costume?"

Jiang shrugged. "I have Xing's too - they didn't want to wear them."

"What?" Aunt Yafang took the costumes from Jiang and looked them over. She frowned at the stain on the front of one of them. "Is this Jiao-tu's, or Xing's?"

"Xiao-tu's, no doubt," Uncle Hong chuckled. Yafang looked at the boys, who both shrugged as if this was the first they'd heard of any ruined costume. She pursed her lips in annoyance. Mother leaned over to look at the stain; Grandmother joined in, and the three women began discussing how best to wash it out. Tian watched them with vague interest. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he caught another flash of orange and took an involuntary step back.

A hand dropped onto his shoulder and squeezed gently; he started in surprise.

"Something bothering you, son?" Tian looked up into his father's open, smiling face.

"No," he lied, his face heating. "I just wish it would hurry up and start. I'm hungry." He couldn't tell if Father believed him or not, but he was too embarrassed to admit to what had happened at the ice cream stand. Grandfather was regarding him with that calm, impenetrable gaze that he was so good at; but he didn't say anything, just puffed away thoughtfully on his pipe.

Fortunately, the sound of tinny, recorded piano music started up and Tian was saved from answering any more questions by the beginning of the performances.

Xing and Jiao-tu's class was the first in the program. Tian watched as a dozen red-and-gold-clad girls - two of them in white only - shuffled daintily across the stage and fanned out to strike identical poses, wrists, elbows, and knees angled just so. Father had his camera, an expensive one with three different lenses that he kept on a shelf in the closet that the children weren't allowed to touch - though he'd let Tian do some practice shots during the drumming. He started snapping photos as soon as the girls were set in their beginning formation.

Tian realized that he shouldn't have been worried that Miss Fa would keep Xing and Jiao-tu from dancing. All Xing had to do was turn up her big blue eyes in a pleading, puppy-dog look; add in a slightly quivering lip, and even the coldest of hearts would melt. She didn't consciously try to manipulate people - she just let her natural emotion show, and no one could resist. Miss Fa had never stood a chance.

Even if she had been dressed the same as the others, though, all eyes would have been drawn straight to Xing. Xing loved to dance, loved it more than anything else, and it showed in the serene expression on her face. She moved with the other girls from precise pose to precise pose, but with a natural grace and flow of movement that set her apart from the rest. She would be dancing with the advanced class too; Miss Fa had moved her ahead a level, but Xing continued attending the intermediate class with Jiao-tu. She said that it was because she wanted to spend more time dancing; while Tian was sure that that was true, he was also sure that the main reason Xing stayed was so that her cousin wouldn't feel abandoned.

Just like with Xing, Jiao-tu needn't have been dressed differently from the others to draw attention to herself. The routine wasn't halfway through before she had bumped into at least three other girls, nearly knocking one of them over. Tian cringed as his cousin crossed one foot behind the other during a backwards step and tripped herself, landing hard on her rear.

"If anyone asks, I don't know her," Jiang muttered under his breath. Yafang flicked his ear. "Ow!"

Jiao-tu recovered herself and trotted back to her place in the formation, her face as red as the costumes. The girls finished out their routine with a flourish of hands and graceful bows, then shuffled off the stage to rounds of applause. Xing stayed to prepare for the next dance; it was a very dejected Jiao-tu that joined the rest of the family in the audience.

"You were lovely up there, Xiao-tu," Yafang told her with a warm smile; but the girl just burst into tears.

"I fell," she sobbed, rubbing her eyes angrily.

Yafang wrapped her arms around her daughter while Hong rubbed her back.

"Maybe you did fall, but you got right back up again - that's more important," he assured Jiao-tu, who just mumbled something incoherent into her mother's stomach.

Yafang pushed Jiao-tu back slightly. "What was that, sweetie?"

The girl sniffed. "I said, can we go see the dragon boats now?"

"We will when Xing is finished," Grandfather told her, patting her head.

The music started up again, signaling the start of the advanced class's piece; this time instead of the flowing notes of a piano, they heard the delicate, sharp strumming of a pipa. Xing appeared again, now in a green tunic that Miss Fa must have been keeping for her. It was another traditional folk dance like the first, depicting a scene from the Legend of the White Snake, a favorite of Jiao-tu and Xing's. Xing was playing the part of the Green Snake, the White Snake's little sister. Even though she was the youngest of this group and not the star of the story, her sweet and joyful movements upstaged them all.

When the performance was over, Xing bounded up to her family, once again clad only in her plain white dress. "How was it?" she asked with bubbling enthusiasm. "Was it good?"

Mother kissed her cheek. "Perfect - you danced beautifully."

Xing beamed. "Everyone worked really hard! 'Tu was great too, even better than in rehearsal!" She reached over and gave her cousin a hug.

"Thanks," Jiao-tu mumbled, returning the hug half-heartedly. Then louder, she said, "Now can we go see the boats?"

"Boats!" Xing clapped her hands. "Which way are they, this way?"

She started to dart off into the crowd, but Tian caught her arm. "Hold on," he said, laughing. "Grandmother wanted a family picture first, remember?"

"Right, right," Grandmother said, herding Jiao-tu and Xing along in front of her. "Let's go over here by the water."

They found a spot on the riverbank, with the rays from the lowering sun glinting off of the sluggish water. Grandmother fussed about, arranging everyone just so. She finally decided on herself and Grandfather in the center, with their children - Mother and Uncle Hong - on either side. Yafang stood next to her husband; Jiang and Jiao-tu were in front of them. Tian and Xing stood in front of Mother. Xing was rocking back and forth on the balls of her feet, already bored with standing still. Tian put a hand on her shoulder to stop her; she was making him dizzy.

"Make sure you smile," Jiang hissed at his sister.

"I am smiling," Jiao-tu scowled.

Father backed up to the edge of the streaming crowd and turned the big lens to focus. "Everyone smile now," he said.

But Xing bounced on her toes fretfully. "Papa, wait! You can't take the picture, you won't be in it!"

Grandmother tutted. "That's right, Xinkun - ask someone to take it for you, then come stand here next to An."

Father looked at the heavy camera in his hands; Tian was sure that he was reluctant to just hand it over to a stranger. Xing had apparently come to the same conclusion. Before Tian could catch her, she ran from her place and tugged on the shirt of a balding, overweight man who just happened to be walking by.

"Mister, Sir, will you please take our picture?"

"Xing, don't! Ah, sorry about that, sir." Father rubbed the back of his head in embarrassment.

But the man was caught in the spell of Xing's sweet blue gaze. He smiled down at her. "Of course, I don't mind at all."

Father showed the man how to work the camera, then led Xing back to the rest of the family. "Stay put for the picture, now," he told her as he positioned her next to Tian.

"I'll hold her," Tian assured Father, and wrapped his sister in a bear hug that lifted her off her feet. She was giggling uncontrollably when the camera shutter clicked.


The dragon boats had competed in the races in the morning; now that the sun was setting and the day was finally cooling off, they were rowing lazily up and down the river. They were works of art: the hulls painted with colorful scales, the prows mounted with snarling, carved dragons' heads. Crewed by expert rowing teams, with wooden oars flashing over the sides in practiced synchrony, they looked like some kind of aquatic, draconian centipedes.

"There aren't any purple ones," Jiao-tu said with a pout.

"Why would there be purple? That's a dumb color. Look, there's the green one that won the race!" Jiang pushed forward closer to the water, Xing following close behind. Jiao-tu, however, hung back.

"I thought you wanted to see the boats," Tian said, coming up to stand next to her.

She shrugged. "It's probably a good thing that they're dragons, and not rabbits. If they were rabbits, they'd sink."

"Rabbits can't swim?"

"I don't know. If they tried, I bet they'd get eaten by giant fish, just like that stupid poet guy."

It took Tian a minute to figure out what she was talking about; then he remembered the legend that had started the Dragon Boat Festival. A famous poet whose name he could never remember had supposedly drowned himself in a river. The townspeople had rushed out in dragon boats to save his body from being eaten by the fish.

But he knew that Jiao-tu wasn't really talking about the poet. Born on the cusp of the new year, her zodiac sign was a rabbit instead of the dragon it would have been if her mother had gone into labor just a day later. Tian didn't put much stock in superstitions like that, but Jiao-tu did, and she hated being a rabbit.

"Are you mad because you didn't do as well as you wanted during the dancing?" he asked her.

She scuffed a foot in the dirt. "I never do well. I'm terrible at dancing. And I'm terrible at wushu. I'm the only one who isn't good at anything."

Athletically speaking, that was true. Jiao-tu was taking wushu classes from Grandfather and Uncle, and she was even clumsier at that than at dancing.

"Well," Tian tried, "you're good at school."

"Being good at school is stupid."

"No, it's sort of the opposite of stupid."

Jiao-tu punched his arm, but there was a slight smile on her face now. "Stupid," she said.

Tian grinned at her, then fished around in his pocket. He found the bracelet that he'd bought earlier, and held it out to her. "Here, this is for you."

She took it and examined the charm curiously. "A dragon?"

"Uh huh. I got a snake one for Xing."

"Thank you," Jiao-tu said politely. "But my sign is a rabbit, remember?"

Tian snorted. "Who's being stupid now? You keep saying that you want to be a dragon - so act like a dragon. Why should it matter when you were born? Come on, let's go get good seats for the fireworks."

Jiao-tu regarded the charm thoughtfully, and allowed him to take her wrist and tow her towards the water where the others were gathered, Xing laughing and pointing at something in the distance. The distinctive scent of pipe tobacco wafted up from behind him, and he turned to see Grandfather smiling at him, eyes hidden behind crinkly wrinkles.

The older man didn't say anything, but patted Tian's shoulder approvingly. Tian felt a warm glow of pride, as they joined the rest of the family.

*Xiao = little