Jim Ellison approached the door to his loft, his shoulders slumped in exhaustion. He'd spent the last three days in Seattle, attending a mandatory conference. Rather than wait until the next day, he'd driven home and, with night coming early in January, it was already dark.
Hoping Blair had prepared dinner, he sent out his senses ahead, smiling when he smelled something warm and spicy--chili and cornbread. He frowned when he heard Blair mumbling, followed by a strange rustling sound. The sight when he softly opened the door made him smile.
Blair stood in front of the balcony windows, the darkness causing them to act like a mirror. He was dressed in a blue silk Chinese tunic and was bowing at the waist, saying something softly. Jim cranked up his hearing a touch to make out the words. "Gung hay fat choy. Gung hay fat choy."
"And Happy New Year to you, too," he said, startling Blair. "What's all this, he said, waving his arm from Blair to a pile of assorted items on the coffee table.
Blair came over and they embraced with a kiss that quickly turned smoldering. "Hey," Blair protested, as he broke the kiss, "you'll get me all wrinkled."
Jim pulled him tighter. "I'll iron it for you," and dove in for another kiss. "I missed you." Just then, his stomach growled.
Blair laughed. "It sounds like you missed my cooking, too. Chili's in the crock pot and salad's in the fridge. Did you want to grab a shower first?"
"Nah, too hungry. I bugged out as soon as I could and missed dinner."
"Okay, get the stuff on the table while I change," Blair said as he climbed the stairs to their room.
Jim popped a last bite of cornbread in his mouth and put his napkin on his plate. "That was great, babe," he said. He cleared the table, then picked up his beer, taking a swallow as he walked into the living room. "So, what is this stuff and what's with the costume?"
Blair picked up his own beer and gave Jim an exasperated stare. "It's for our trip to San Francisco, for the Chinese New Year's Eve family reunion dinner. I don't want to screw it up."
"Screw it up? What are you talking about? We don't need to do anything except show up. Believe me, everything else is already done."
Blair shook his head. "Look, these dinners are usually only for close family. Being invited to it is a big deal. There are rituals, you know? Do's and don'ts that we have to follow. We haven't seen any of these people since the wedding last year. I don't want to be embarrassed."
At Jim's bewildered look, Blair picked up a paper. "Look, there're things that you should do and give, like the red envelopes with money for the kids and meaningful gifts for the elders. It's a sign of respect."
"I get it, Chief. You're saying it's no different from any other culture you're trying to fit into. You need to impress them, so you don't get off on the wrong foot." Blair nodded vigorously. "But, you've already met these people at the wedding. It's not as if they're going to judge you like you're a stranger."
"That's true," Blair conceded, "but even members inside the culture have to follow protocols. For instance, there's a whole list of gifts you're forbidden to give because they're considered bad portent."
"Forbidden? Isn't that a little extreme?"
Blair shook his head. "I'm serious, man, look at this," he waved a paper at Jim.
Jim took the paper and read. "Scissors. Not that I think you'd give scissors, but why not?"
"Giving scissors means you want to cut off your relationship with the person."
Jim rolled his eyes and read the next line. "Four of anything."
"The Chinese word for 'four' sounds similar to the word for 'death'. So, four is very bad."
Blair sighed, "Again, it's a sound thing. The word sounds like the word for evil or bad luck. The same with giving a clock, which sounds the same as the phrase for attending a funeral. All bad luck."
Jim read down the rest of the list, then looked at Blair. "So, if all these things are bad, what can you give?"
"I'm glad you asked," Blair replied, breaking into his first real grin. "Look at these. I still have more to buy, but I think I've made a good start." He pulled out a box from a large shopping bag. "It's traditional to give the patriarch a carton of his favorite smokes, but nowadays it's more popular to show you care about his health. So, I got Sally's mom and dad matching foot bath massagers. For the Chen sisters, who are also hosting the dinner, I picked up a nice selection of the best Irish whiskeys to represent your side of the family.
"I've got no clue how many kids there'll be, so I just got a bunch of red envelopes. I stopped by the bank to pick up new bills, because giving worn-out money is an insult, although I can't imagine the kids will care. Since giving in even numbers is good--"
"Except for four," Jim interrupted.
"Except for four, yeah, so we'll give the younger ones a ten-dollar bill and the older ones a twenty. Plus, we'll bring small wrapped candies to hand out to the kids and oranges for the adults. To spread happiness."
"Sounds reasonable. What else have you got?" Jim asked, indicating another large bag.
"I stopped by Andrea's shop and picked up a nice assortment of scarves." He pulled out a couple of colorful ones, one made of silk and the other a soft acrylic. "Nothing in black or white, which is only used for mourning."
Jim fingered the hand-knitted scarf, enjoying the red color that was shot through with slender gold thread. "These look great. Let me know what else we need, and I'll help finish up. I think we're going to need at least one extra suitcase to lug this stuff down there." Blair nodded enthusiastically. "Just one thing, though. You should probably nix the jacket. That color looks great on you, but it's over the top. Like you're trying too hard."
Blair looked confused. "But Sally told me I should get one and practice my bowing and greeting so I don't offend her parents."
Jim's eyes widened and he let out a bark of laughter. "She was just kidding with you, babe." At Blair's disbelieving stare, he came over and put his arm around Blair's shoulders. "Don't feel bad. She only teases people she loves."
Blair was silent a few more seconds, then shrugged philosophically. "I didn't know she had it in her. I definitely need to re-evaluate that woman."
"Well, just don't piss her off, Chief, or we'll be cut off from her almond cake. So," he said as he started packing up the presents, "what are we planning for the rest of the time in the city?"
"Hmm," Blair replied, picking another piece of paper. "Well, if we follow tradition, the next day's devoted to visiting individual families to pay our respects. There are actually 15 days of traditions, but I don't think we'll be expected to do everything. We'll play it by ear. I think I'm going to ask your dad's advice, though, since Sally's become an unreliable resource."
Jim chuckled. "I'm sure we can find any number of things to do. If the weather's nice, how about we walk the Wharf, maybe rent some equipment and try surf fishing? I've never done the Alcatraz tour, either."
"Whatever you wish, babe, as long as we get to see the parade. It's going to be awesome." Blair gave Jim a sultry smile. "Now, how about we leave the dishes soaking and you can show me how much you appreciate everything I did to make a good impression on the in-laws?"
Jim grinned back. "That sounds like a fine idea. Those dishes might have to wait 'til morning."
Blair's eyes widened at Jim's blatant disregard of his own house rules and sauntered up the stairs.
Jim stood respectfully to Blair's right and two steps back, not only for protocol's sake but to watch Blair's butt as he bowed low, presenting their gifts to the elders. "Gung hay fat choy," Blair murmured, and Jim smiled as they gave a regal nod of approval and accepted their gifts. Jim bowed as well, albeit not as low as Blair, and they moved on to the next family members. Every pocket in his jacket and pants was stuffed with red envelopes and candy. He winked at Sally's youngest grand-niece, slipping several of the colorful sweets into her hand as they moved along the reception line.
The formal greetings were finished sooner than he expected. They'd made the informal rounds, passing out oranges and envelopes and, drinks in hand, were sitting down to the first courses of the elaborate meal. As at the wedding, they ended up at the same table with the Chens, although the sisters took turns popping up and down, making sure all went off as planned. He smiled as they congratulated Blair on his greeting etiquette, as well as their choice of gifts.
As Yu Yan Chen started to explain the significance of the various dishes to Blair, Sally and William arrived. Blair and Jim stood, and the four exchanged embraces. As Sally kissed Blair on both cheeks, she said, "Blair, my parents were delighted with your presentation, as well as the gifts. Mom was so glad Dad didn't get another carton of cigarettes." Blair shot a sideways glance at Jim, who was grinning. "But why didn't you wear your changshan? It really brings out the color of your eyes," she said with a little grin.
Blair folded his arms and gave her a mock stern look, which only made her smile widen. "I would have, but I didn't want to upstage anyone," he replied.
Sally laughed. "Ah, totally understandable. Perhaps you'll wear it at our next dinner? Just for me?"
Blair took her hand and kissed it. "Anything for you, Mrs. E. But you must promise to make your almond cake." At her nod, he pulled out the chair next to his and the discussion turned back to the food and fun they would be having that evening.