It's the Thought that Counts

 

I've never really been a big fan of Valentines Day - which doesn't matter much when you're an elementary school student. But, this being my first year in junior high, somehow it's supposed to be a Big Deal.

I guess that anyone who makes it through the day without being noticed is really, really lucky.

"Expecting any gifts from the girls, Jenrya?" my father teases, as I got ready to leave for school. Valentines is on a Thursday this year - which means a lot of minor chaos in the hallways before class. You have to get there earlier on days like this just to get to homeroom on time.

Hopefully Takato hasn't forgotten we promised to meet ten minutes earlier today.

"I don't have that many friends who are girls," I point out, in answer to that question. "I seriously doubt Ruki's going to give out any chocolate - she didn't last year. I'll probably get something from Juri, though."

"Nothing special, huh?"

"Nope." I tie my shoes, straighten the collar on my uniform in front of the hall mirror, and throw on my coat as I leave the apartment. "See you later."

"Have a good day!"

Everyone seems to think these things are supposed to be more complicated now. And - well - I guess they are, in a way. But the important things are still the same. I meet with Takato on the way to school, we meet up with Hirokazu, Kenta, and sometimes Juri at lunch, and Ryo and Ruki join us after school. At least most days. There are times when some or all of us are just too busy - but it doesn't really matter, because there's always tomorrow.

I just wish people - namely my parents - would stop asking me when I'm going to get myself a girlfriend. I'm only thirteen, right? I don't want to think about girls until I'm at least in high school.

"Hey, Jen!" As it turns out, Takato did remember. He's actually waiting at the corner when I get there, in his winter coat and with his overstuffed backpack. We have gym together, so he'll have his strip, and I think he's got an open-book biology test in his section that requires the huge ugly text, too.

Takato hasn’t changed much since I met him. He's still got the same hairstyle, the same cute way of smiling, and he still wears goggles - even in class and despite the fact that several teachers would like to rip them off his head and stomp on them a few times. Last summer he hit something of a growth spurt, but I've been growing too, so he hasn't caught up to me yet. We'll have to wait and see how that goes.

The only odd thing today is the wrapped package he's holding under his arm.

Well… it is Valentines Day, after all… "Who's that from?" I ask, glancing curiously at the present as we start walking. It's lumpy - like something soft that the sender hadn't bothered to put in a box before covering it in cheap blue paper. Definitely not a professional wrapping job, that's for sure.

"Oh… this?" Predictably enough, Takato goes red. "Um… well… it…" He hesitates, as if debating with himself over something.

"Homemade, is it?" I can tell that just by looking at him - something store-bought wouldn't have gotten this sort of reaction. "Is it from Juri?" That's the only person I can think of off the top of my head…

"Uh, no… not her…" He tucks one hand under the package, as if to keep me from seeing it. "It's no one, really." If anything, he looks even more embarrassed than before.

"Well, you don't have to tell me." I can't help being curious, though. I don't think Takato's gotten a homemade gift for Valentines before. "It wasn't some kind of 'secret admirer' thing, was it?"

"Not exactly." He looks like he's recovering a bit - even offers me a rueful smile. "I mean, I know who made it…"

"So it is homemade." I grin a bit.

He blinks, then seems to realize he's slipped up and looks abashed. "Ah… well…"

"Don't worry, I won't bug you about it," I assure him. "But I'd suggest you hide it before we run into Hirokazu. Otherwise you're never going to hear the end of it."

His eyes widen just a bit. "I never thought of that…"

"I didn't think you had." I can't help but grin some more.

That's one of the great things about Takato - he's so careless. And, I mean, that sounds bad if you say it just like that, but when you think about how wound up I can get sometimes, I think it's good for me to have a friend like him. He helps me relax.

Lord knows there are times when I need to.

"Well, good luck with the rabid girl gangs, Jen!" he calls when we head into the school hallways and part ways at the first corridor break. He has math first thing, and I've got history. But I'll see him again at lunch, and then we have gym together.

Hopefully I can survive that long. Looking at the squealing pack blocking the corridor I need to move through, I'm not so sure about that.

And people wonder why I don't find Valentines Day all that much fun.

~~~~~~

"Hey guys!" Juri cheerfully bounces over and plops herself down next to Takato, shoving him over a bit to make room for her on the bench and setting her lunch tray down next to his. "Happy Valentines Day!"

"Hey yourself, and what's so happy about it?" Hirokazu shakes his head at her from his side of the table - formerly across from me, and now across from Takato instead, since I had to move over to make more room for Juri. "No one's given me chocolate."

She giggles. "What girl would? Except me, of course." The bag she's been carrying is slid around so she can reach inside, and in the next second she pulls out four small boxes. "Here." She hands one across the table to him.

"Excellent! Juri, you're the man!" The boy currently wearing the only piece of headgear in the school that generates more dislike among the teachers than Takato's goggles snatches the offering from her hand, grinning like mad. "Well, not really, but you know what I mean."

"I got a few things," Takato admits, taking Juri's present and smiling in thanks. "Nothing special, though - just store-bought stuff from a couple of friends."

"Did you write down their names so you'd remember for White Day?" I ask, accepting the third package. Takato can be a bit absent-minded sometimes. "That's what I always do. I don’t want to forget anyone."

"No - but that's a good idea! Thanks Jen!" He puts down Juri's gift - on top of his meatloaf, incidentally - and pulls his bag up to root through it for a pen and paper.

"It's the same one I gave you last year," I remind him, with a bit of a grin.

"Oh… yeah. Heh heh. Ugh… I don't remembering putting that in there… where's my mini notepad…?"

I shake my head. Takato never changes. Thank god.

Juri looks around, still holding the fourth packet of chocolates. "Where's Kenta?"

"I t'ink 'e go' 'el' af'er c'ass," Hirokazu told her, around a mouthful of chocolate. He's going to be sorry later, when the rest of us still have some.

Then again, maybe not. He'll probably get to share Kenta's anyway.

Juri blinks in response. "What?"

"I said" - He finally swallows - "I think he got held after class." He shrugs. "I didn't see him in the hallway or anything."

Takato finally pulls out his somewhat-rumpled drawing bad and a pen. "Kenta got held after class? How'd that happen? Kenta never gets held after class like this!"

I can't help but stare at him for that one. "What universe did you just step out of? Kenta never gets held after class? He's held after class every few days!"

"Not with today's schedule." Takato shook his head. "No classes with Hirokazu until after lunch."

Oh. That made sense. "You're right, that is weird."

"Hey!" Hirokazu glared across the table at Takato. "Just what are you - ?"

"Sorry I'm late!" Kenta suddenly maneuvers his way out of the lunchroom crowd, slapping his tray down on the table beside his best friend to avoid spilling it all over the floor as he half-stumbles into his seat. There's a neatly-wrapped box under his arm. "I was just - "

"Well, it's about time!" Hirokazu interrupts, abruptly forgetting Takato's comment. "What'd you get held after class for, anyway?" He stares a bit as the shorter boy straightens his glasses and sets the package down on the table by his tray. "And what's that?"

"Huh? I wasn't held after class." Kenta flushes the slightest bit, tugging uneasily at the ribbon on the package. "Um… Hanako wanted to talk to me after class. She - uh - gave me these. Chocolate." If anything, the blush gets worse; he fiddles with his glasses some more to cover it.

"Chocolate? Hanako?" Hirokazu's reaction is not what I would've expected. Last year he teased Takato until everything from his hair to his shirt collar had gone beat red just for being given a chocolate bar by some girl none of us knew. "Hey! What gives? She's always making fun of you!"

I grin. "Maybe that's her way of letting him know she likes him."

"Her teasing secretly hides an undying love!" Takato chimes in, copying my grin.

Juri giggles again. "That's so cute!"

"Come on, guys!" By that point, Kenta's gone totally red, and he's squirming in his seat uncomfortably. "It's not that funny… just some dumb chocolates. Who cares about that girl anyway?"

"Well, she cares about you," I point out. "Those aren't homemade, are they?"

"What? No way!" He shakes his head vehemently. "I wouldn't take them if they were!"

"But that would break her heart!" Takato laughs.

"Can we just drop this?" Kenta almost whines, his ears starting to turn as red as his face.

Hirokazu makes an annoyed sound, scowling. "She can't just make fun of him all year and then suddenly give him chocolate!" he says peevishly, crossing his arms. "That's against the rules or something! Besides, she's just a regular bitch for making fun of Kenta! Who would want chocolate from someone like that?"

"Excuse me?" I raise an eyebrow at him. Takato looks about as puzzled as I do. This isn't like Hirokazu at all. "Yesterday you told Kenta he'd need a different brain to ever win at anything - and then 'borrowed' two of his Digimon cards when he wasn't looking."

"What?" Kenta's head jerks up.

"I was gonna give 'em back!" Hirokazu protests, defensively. "Anyway, that's different. I'm not a dumb girl with a stupid box of chocolates. Besides, everyone knows I'm the only one who can make fun of Kenta!"

I stare at him - and beside me, Takato's staring at him, too. This is… unusual.

"Oh! I've got chocolates for you too, Kenta!" Juri smiles brightly, breaking the moment without a care and offering her own small box - which is only about half as big as the one Hanako gave him. "Happy Valentines!"

"Thanks, Juri." He quickly stows both boxes away in his bag, and changes the subject. "Did you have an algebra test this morning, Hirokazu? I've got that same class this afternoon, and I forgot to study."

"Aw, don’t remind me!" Abruptly, Hirokazu's whole attitude shifts back to normal. "That crazy old bat hates my guts, I swear it! That test was designed just to bring me down!" He glares as Kenta goes to stuff his bag under the table. "What do you think you're doing, putting that chocolate away? I'm still hungry!"

"Hey, get your own!"

I watch the resulting argument - which inevitably ends with Kenta giving up half of Juri's gift - and shake my head.

I have weird friends.

~~~~~~

"Anyone got a plan for tonight?"

I look over to where Takato's sitting on the swing at the park - just sitting, instead of actually swinging, which Juri is doing right next to him. "It's a school night, so nothing too late," I remind him.

"Yeah, I know." He smiles ruefully. "But since none of us are going to the Valentines dance, I thought we should all do something together. You know?"

"Hah! No one with brains would go to a school dance." Hirokazu leans back dangerously from his perch at the top bar of the swing set. He likes to do strange things, so no one other than a few random people passing along the path outside of the playground really batted an eye when he climbed up. "They expect you to drink punch, play it up real nice with the chaperones, and dance with girls."

"You want to drink vodka, play it up naughty with the chaperones, and dance with boys instead?" I ask, amused.

Takato coughs, and grins a little.

"Who would want to dance at all?" Hirokazu scoffs, waving a hand and almost losing his balance. He's not really athletic by nature - I can't imagine why he wants to court death climbing around. "Anyway, when do we ever know what we're going to do at night? Why not just hang out like usual?"

"I've got homework due tomorrow," Kenta complains, clinging to his section of the bar with both arms and legs. He doesn't look nearly as comfortable as Hirokazu - but he was the one who followed him up there, so he only has himself to blame. "I really should just stay home after dinner."

"Lighten up, Kenta - like anyone's gonna care if it's a couple days late. You're still going to get higher marks than me in everything."

"Actually, I've got homework too," I add. It's not much - but it wouldn't hurt to have extra time for it. "Why don't we do something tomorrow night instead?"

Takato shrugs. "I just thought it'd be a fun idea, since most of the kids I know are all at the dance."

"I think it would be," Juri agrees, brightly. She slows her swinging and smiles at him. "I'll hang out with you, Takato - and probably Ryo and Ruki too, when they get here."

Absently, I wonder if maybe it was Juri who sent the homemade present Takato had been carrying earlier that morning. Of course, he'd told me it wasn't her, and I don't think Takato's ever lied to me. Besides, she'd given him chocolate at lunch, just like everyone else. And I somehow can't see Juri being shy about showing her emotions. Despite the fact that's she's become a bit more subdued since I met her, she's still very open like that.

So who did send it, anyway?

"That sounds okay - we can meet up after dinner." He smiles back at her, then turns to look at me again. "Sure you don't want to come, Jen?"

I shrug. "Well, if everyone else is going…"

Takato's smile widens.

"I'm not going," Kenta points out.

Hirokazu waves that off. "Sure you are."

"I said I had homework!"

"I heard you. You're still hanging out with us tonight, though."

I shake my head again. Hirokazu always gets his way when it comes to Kenta. Sometimes I wonder about those two…

"I heard Hanako ask you if you were going to the dance in the hallway, Kenta," Juri says, giggling some more. "I'll bet she was hoping she could dance with you if you did. Maybe that's why she gave you the chocolates first, hm?"

"She asked you to go to the dance?" Takato looks up at the now-blushing boy, interested. "Seriously?"

"She did not ask me to go to the dance!" Kenta protests, slipping sideways and having to clutch at the bar even tighter as he glares at Takato. "She just wanted to know if I was going - and anyway, the only reason she asked was so she could make some kind of comment about how no girl would ever want to dance with me."

"Ah, it's just because she's too shy to admit that she wants you," I say, grinning.

"I can't believe this girl!" Hirokazu waves both arms in the air, momentarily forgetting that he needs them to keep his balance. "Where does she get off, acting like you two are suddenly the best of buddies, huh? And what's with that chocolate? I can't believe she gave you chocolate! She didn't give anyone else chocolate! What about me? Don’t I deserve chocolate? Just what's she trying to say?"

"Obviously she's trying to say that she likes Kenta." I frown at Hirokazu for a moment, puzzled by this new behavior. It doesn't seem at all like him - it's almost like he's jealous or something. But… jealous of Kenta? That's really strange.

And there's this odd glint he gets in his eyes…

"Well, that's the dumbest thing I ever heard!" Hirokazu huffs again, and glares down at the rest of us, deliberately not looking at the boy perched beside him.

"Look, you can have the chocolate, okay?" Even Kenta seems bothered by this attitude. "I don't want it anyway. Just go ahead and take it, and stop being so weird."

"I'm not weird! You're weird!"

"Am not! You!"

"You!"

"You!"

"You!"

Someone makes a disgusted noise behind me. "They're like whining children, aren't they? Is it time to change their diapers yet?"

I don't really need to turn around. "Hey Ruki - nice to see you too."

She ignores that. The expression on her face is pretty dark, and the reason for it is clear - there's a rose like the ones that students paid to have delivered to other students during class time clutched in one tightly clenched fist. "I don't suppose Ryo is here yet?" she asks, through clenched teeth.

"Uh… no." Takato eyes her warily. It's usually best to be cautious when Ruki is truly angry - and she looks truly angry. "Why, did you want to talk to him?"

"You could say that." She cracks the knuckles on the fist that still holds the rose, and continues to glare at the rest of us.

"Happy Valentines Day, Ruki!" Juri chirps, not phased at all. She beams at the taller girl from her seat on the swing. "That's a pretty rose."

If it were anyone else, his or her life would be in immediate danger. As it is, Ruki scowls at her. "No, it's not," she snaps. "It's stupid. Anyone who gives out these dumb things deserves to be shot."

"Oh Ruki, you're just - "

"Hey guys!" Ryo jogs over from behind Takato and Juri, his uniform mussed slightly from running. "Sorry it took me so long to get here - the halls were kind of crowded after school, because of Valentines Day and all…"

Ruki has already stalked past us, and meets the older boy by shoving the rose into his face. "Mind explaining this, hot shot?" she demands, eyes flashing dangerously.

"Huh? Oh, that." Ryo grins at her. "It's a good idea, isn't it? All the profits go to charity, you know…"

"If you want to help the needy, why not just make a donation?" By now, we're all watching this new development with some interest. "Valentines Day is supposed to be for girls to give presents to boys, not the other way around. Or didn't you know that?"

Ryo shrugs, offering her an easy smile. "Well, I thought you'd be offended if I sent it on White Day - too girly, you know. And you're not the sort of person who lives by convention."

"Look, I don't know what you were thinking when you decided on this." Despite her words, Ruki seems less angry now and more just plain exasperated. She crosses her arms, still holding the rose. "But next time you think about sending me a rose, do me a favor and don’t."

"No problem," he says agreeably, giving her another casual grin. His eyes hold that particular glint they always seem to have when he's looking at her. Something about Ruki really interests him, I guess.

Personally, I think he may just be crazy.

"Well, as long as you understand." She turns around again, facing the rest of us instead. "I'll need to put this thing in water when I get home, I guess."

Behind her, Ryo smiles.

"Well, if we're doing something tonight, can we hurry up and decide what so I can go home and do my homework before dinner?" Kenta says plaintively.

"Oh, so suddenly you're Mr. I'm-too-busy-for-my-friends-now-that-girls-give-me-presents." Hirokazu shoots him a superior sort of look. "Maybe you want to go home and get started on eating that mound of Valentines chocolate you got, huh?"

"I only got one box! Would you let it drop already?" Kenta looks disgruntled. "And I already said you could have it - what more do you want?"

Hirokazu tucks his hands behind his head, teetering precariously. "Why don't you go hang out with Hanako if we annoy you so much?" He shoots a sideways glance at the shorter boy, and that strange glint is back in his eyes.

… A glint remarkably similar to the one in Ryo's.

I think I'm on the verge of a revelation here. It can't be…

"Hey, I don't know what your problem is, but cut it out already!" Kenta lets out a frustrated breath. "It's not like I asked her to give me chocolate - why take it out on me?"

"You're just an easy target." Hirokazu grins at him, his eyes still glinting in that funny way.

I’m right. I can't believe I'm right, but I am. Unbelievable! Who saw this coming?

"Jen?" Takato's giving me a bit of a strange look. "You've been pretty quiet," he points out, when I meet his gaze. "What's on your mind?"

"Oh… not much." I don't think Hirokazu would appreciate it if I went and revealed his secret now. "I'm cool with just about anything tonight, so I thought I'd let you guys decide."

Hirokazu slides down off the top of the swings. "In that case, we're taking turns running naked around the park screaming at the top of our lungs," he tells me, grinning. "And you're up first."

"Yeah, nice try." I look around at the others. "Where are we meeting, and when?"

"Seven o'clock, and at Ruki's," Ryo fills me in. "We're going to have a gaming tournament at the arcade."

"Which I'm going to win," Hirokazu brags.

Ruki raises an eyebrow at him. "In your dreams, you mean."

"Sounds okay to me," I agree. "So I'll see you guys then?"

"Yup!" Takato hops off the swing. "Seven o'clock - don't be late."

"I'll be there early!" Juri promises enthusiastically.

"Yeah, and Ruki will still manage to be late and make an unexpected entrance," Ryo adds, grinning at the girl - who just smirks a bit in response.

"Can someone please help me down?" Kenta calls plaintively, from the top of the swing set.

~~~~~~

"Don’t take your shoes off, Jen!" my older sister calls out, when I come back in the door. "Dad's going to send you to the store to get some eggs - we're out again."

"Huh?" That doesn't seem fair… "How come you couldn’t go?"

Jaarin pokes her head out of her room to grin at me. "I'm doing my homework."

"I was about to do mine!" Still, it's probably not worth the breath it'll take to protest. Especially since I'll be going out again after supper, and Jaarin will probably still be in doing her homework. I groan a bit. "All right, all right… Where is Dad, then?"

"In the kitchen," she answers, ducking back inside as I walk past.

I find my father making dinner, by himself - we're not really expected to help out with that unless it's the weekend or a holiday. "Do we need anything besides eggs?"

"Oh, Jaarin told you?" He glances over his shoulder at me. "No, the eggs will be good enough. The money's on the table over there - you can keep the change for doing that for me."

"Thanks, Dad." More quarters for the arcade later. "I'll be right back."

"Dinner's in about half an hour, so don't dawdle," he warns me.

"I won't."

With that in mind, I cut through the park on my way - right back the way I'd come, strangely enough. The store we go to for quick shopping is on the way to school anyway.

It's still pretty cold out, so I pull my jacket up over my neck as much as possible. I need to get a new scarf - Shuichon cut up my last one to make afghans for her dolls. I just keep putting it off, though - I'm not all that fond of clothes shopping. For some reason, it strikes me as a real waste of time.

I walk by the playground area on the far side, and catch sight of something kind of strange.

It's Takato, and he's pulling the cheap blue paper off of that present he was carrying to school with him earlier. I can't help but pause for a second; he's glancing around a bit nervously, but it's starting to get dark out and I'm standing past the trees, so he doesn’t see me.

Normally I wouldn't spy like this, but curiosity gets the best of me.

He finishes with the paper, and pulls out - as an odd coincidence - a scarf. It's definitely a homemade scarf, but it's got a nice pattern to it; whoever made it was good at the designing part, anyway. At least, as far as I can tell from that distance. It looks like it's green with blue and yellow decorations, and whoever made it spent a lot of time on it.

This is the kind of present you'd give to someone you considered pretty special.

Takato doesn't stop to admire it at all, though; he scrambles around for another strip of a different kind of wrapping paper, and proceeds to re-wrap the present in the new paper, still glancing around as if he expects someone to ambush him.

Okay… I frown a bit. Either he's trying to give a present someone gave him to someone else - which really doesn't seem like something Takato would do, no matter how little he thought of the person giving it - or…

Or he made the scarf himself for someone he thought was special, and he's wrapping it in different paper for some odd reason.

It does look like something Takato made… I don't know how or why I come up with that, but for some reason, the more I think about it, the more I realize that the scarf's got his efforts printed all over it as plainly as if he'd written his name there while making it.

All right… so he made a scarf for someone on Valentines Day. Disregarding how odd that is, considering only girls give out presents today… Why would he be re-wrapping it? Did he change his mind halfway through the day and realize he didn't like the color of the paper?

Or… did he let whoever it was for see the original paper already and then chicken out about letting them know that he was the one giving it to them?

A second later, he jumps up and I have to get off the path in a hurry because he jogs over to move down it - back the way I just came.

I have this funny feeling…

I continue on to the store, buy the eggs, and head home. That same funny feeling stays with me the whole time - it's a suspicion I have, and it's related to Takato and that scarf of his. I can't say for sure, but I get the feeling I know exactly who it's for, and the anticipation gives me a weird tingling sensation I can't really explain.

I'm not so sure what it all means…

But when I get back home, it turns out I'm right, because outside our apartment door, with my name printed on the front in bold, capital letters, is the scarf I just watched my best friend re-wrap.

~~~~~~

At seven o'clock, I approach Ruki's house feeling kind of odd. I'm wearing Takato's scarf - which is nice and warm, and goes with my coat. But I don't really know what to do about this.

Hell, I don't even know what to think about this.

Should I thank him? That'd mean giving away the fact that I know who gave it to me. I'd really rather not do that right now, because for one thing, he obviously doesn't want me to know. Not that it takes a genius to figure out why… I'm his best friend, after all. He's probably not sure if I'll hate him, or be disgusted, or what.

And also… if I tell him I know it's him, that means I'll have to give him some kind of response, too.

I really don't know how to deal with this, so I'm going to act like I have no idea and hope he doesn't bring it up some time before I have a chance to figure it all out.

Takato's a nice person… I don't want to see him get hurt at all. I especially don't want to hurt him myself. But I don't know if that's because he's my friend or because maybe there's a chance that I can feel the same way about him that he obviously feels about me.

This is too confusing.

"Hey," Ryo greets me, as I join the small group waiting outside Ruki's front door. It looks like everyone's there but me - and Ruki, of course. "We're arranging a tournament - sort of. Did you have any preference about who you play first, or did you want to just go along and see what happens?"

"Anything's fine with me." I shrug, glancing around quickly. Takato doesn't seem to be acting strange… Then again, he's probably used to this. I'm the one who only just found out about it.

"That's a really nice scarf!" Juri comments - the first person to notice. "Where did you get it?"

"Someone gave it to me." For some reason, it's really easy to sound casual. I smile a bit. "I found it outside my door with my name on it - I guess it's a Valentines present."

"Homemade?" Hirokazu raises both eyebrows at me. "Who's it from?"

"It didn’t say." That's not exactly a lie… "Whoever it was must've known I needed a scarf. I've been too lazy to go out and buy a new one after mine got turned into doll clothing."

"Maybe they're stalking you." Takato laughs a bit, looking only slightly guilty, and grins at me.

I sure hope he's not referring to himself… "Somehow that's not all that romantic, you know?"

"Romantic like a secret admirer?" Kenta would obviously like a chance to get even for my comments about his box of chocolates. "Obviously some girl's been watching you."

I don't find this as annoying as he did - after all, I know who gave it to me, and it's not someone I dislike. "I guess so," I agree, and he looks sort of disappointed.

"Man, what is it with everyone but me getting this Valentines crap?" Hirokazu rolls his eyes. "This whole holiday's nothing but a bunch of garbage anyway. Like I want some girl slobbering all over me with her chocolates and her homemade junk!"

No, you just want Kenta slobbering all over you, I think privately - but don't say anything out loud. The amusement isn't worth the chaos it'll probably cause, and I'm not so sure I'd be doing him a favor by blurting it out. "Well, this is a nice scarf, so I don't mind."

Takato's staring at me. I glance over at him, and he shrugs and grins like it's nothing, but I think my comment brightened him up some. If you put a lot of effort into something, I guess it is nice if it's appreciated.

"I guess you can't knock a holiday where people give you presents," Ryo says. "Even if some of them are supposed to mean more than you want them to."

"Some of what mean more?" Ruki finally joins us, stepping out of the shadows around the side of her house. "Are we ready to go?" she asks, without waiting for an answer to her question.

"Any time you are." Ryo offers his arm - which she ignores - and we're off.

The arcade isn't crowded - it's too late for most younger kids to be around, and a lot of the older kids are at all kinds of school dances or out on dates for Valentines Day. This is probably part of the reason someone picked it out as our destination of choice, I'd assume - although it's not like we don't come here often enough already.

But it's the sort of thing we all enjoy, so it's a pretty good place to spend a few hours.

We start in a tight group, clustered together over the machine chosen as our tournament field - but in the end, we're scattered around the arcade. Inevitably, Ryo and Ruki are still battling it out for the final match. Hirokazu and Kenta are playing the two-person racing game, and every so often Hirokazu will make some sign of triumph while Kenta bashes his head against the dashboard. I have yet to see Kenta win at anything against Hirokazu. At the other end of the room, Takato is showing Juri how to beat the giant pinball machine.

I feel strange again. Yesterday, I would've thought of his crush on her from a few years ago - maybe absently wondered if it were still present. What happened to that, anyway? When did I catch his attention? What was it I did that made such an impression?

And if he does feel that way about me, how come he's not blushing and stammering around me the same way he did around her sometimes? Is it because we were good friends first, or because I'm a guy and that makes it totally different?

It unnerves me. Sometimes I get the feeling thinking is my weak point.

Because when I'm around Takato, it's hard to feel nervous - but when I'm alone, this whole thing makes my stomach flip around. I could be wrong, but I think it's supposed to be the other way around.

"I win again!" Hirokazu crows. "Man, you suck at this! I'll bet I could still beat you even if you got a two-lap head start! This is starting to get pretty boring, beating you all the time…"

"Thanks a lot," Kenta grumbles. He moves out from under the wheel and stands up.

"Hey! Where do you think you're going?"

"To the bathroom - if that's okay." The shorter boy brushes off his clothes quickly and runs to the door marked 'Men'. "Why don't you play someone better if you're so bored?" he shoots back over his shoulder.

Ouch.

"Yeah, well maybe I will!" That's not much of a threat. I watch Hirokazu slump in his seat, and grin a bit. Of course he's not going to want to find anyone else - not only because of his unmentioned crush on Kenta, but because he likes having someone around he can always count on to either support him constantly or lose whenever they face off. And I think Kenta knows that, too.

I have to revise my opinion of those two. Maybe their miniature power structure isn't so simple after all.

"I'll play you," I offer, taking the seat Kenta just vacated. It'll be good to take my mind off everything else.

"You feel like losing or something?" He smirks at me.

"We'll see about that." I grin back, and insert a quarter into the machine to start it up.

"Hey, look!" Juri's voice calls out, as the buzzer goes and the race begins. "Hirokazu's racing Jenrya now!"

"Yeah?" About two seconds after Takato answers her, I hear them run up behind the game to watch. "This should be good!" Looks like we've got an audience.

I edge around the corner ahead of the car that had been in third place and keep my eyes on the "road". Beside me, Hirokazu's muttering to himself as he maneuvers the wheel around.

As far as I can tell, Ryo and Ruki haven't even noticed us.

"Huh?" Kenta is apparently finished in the bathroom. I make another sharp turn and finish my second lap. One more to go… "Are we having another tournament?"

"No, I just want to see how this turns out," Takato answers him. "All right, Jen!" he cheers, as I edge ahead of Hirokazu's car.

I can't help but smile at that. I guess it is kind of nice to have steady support.

Kenta runs around to hover by the other chair. "Don't let him beat you!" he urges Hirokazu.

"He's not gonna beat me!" Someone's getting a little overconfident… I take one of the jumps, avoiding swerving around on the landing, and increase my lead.

Just in time to cross the finish line - first.

"Aw, man!" Hirokazu falls back against his chair, clapping both hands over his eyes in a show of dismay. "I don't believe it!"

I lean back. "Well, you'd better start believing, then." Somehow, I got the feeling he deserved that.

"Wait to go, Jen!" Takato congratulates me, enthusiastically. "That's showing him!"

"That was some pretty cool driving!" Juri agrees.

Kenta glances at the still-mourning Hirokazu. "Cheer up. You can still beat me," he says consolingly.

"Like that's something to brag about," the taller boy grumbles.

"Hey! I'm trying to be reassuring here!"

"Yeah, well you're doing a lousy job."

I get up out of the driver's seat. "Anyone else want to beat Hirokazu?"

"Hey!"

"I will!" Juri volunteers brightly.

Hirokazu doesn't get a chance to reply to that, because across the room, the ending music for our original game starts playing - and we all spin around at once to look.

Ruki turns to meet our expectant gazes, and smirks. "I think that was a foregone conclusion."

"Yeah, right." Ryo offers a good-natured glare. "That's why the end result was decided by a hundredth of a point, huh?"

"I was just having an off night."

"Hooray!" Juri claps her hands together. "Congratulations, Ruki!"

The red-haired girl shrugs, still looking totally cool after her victory. "Whatever. So are we going for ice cream before splitting up tonight, or what?"

"All right! And the loser treats everyone else!" Hirokazu declares, jumping up.

Kenta's shoulders droop. "But I'm broke!"

"I think the winner should treat us." Ryo punches Ruki in the shoulder lightly. Sometimes I think he's one of the bravest people on the face of the planet. "What do you say?"

She's obviously still in a good mood from her recent win. "Sure, why not?"

And that's the crowning point on a pretty surreal Valentines Day.

~~~~~~

"So why are you still wearing that thing, huh?"

I look up at Hirokazu. He's bouncing from one foot to the other, and his expression indicates that he's more irritable than usual. "What thing?"

He lets out an impatient breath. "That scarf, doofus. It's not cold enough to need it any more, so why are you still wandering around with it on? Is it some tribute to your secret admirer, or what?"

I shrug. Truthfully, it seems like such a waste to just put it aside. After all the time Takato must've spent making it, I don't want to stuff it in a closet somewhere just yet. "I just like it, that's all."

Out of the corner of my eye, I can see Takato shift a bit. I don't want to turn and look to see if he's smiling, though, because that'd probably give away the fact that I know there's some kind of connection between him and this scarf.

And I still don't know exactly what to do about that yet.

"Well it makes you look like a moron, just so you know."

What's with him, anyway?

Takato beats me to the question. "What crawled up your butt and died this morning?"

"None of your business." Now I'm not even sure he heard the same question I did. "Are we doing something, or are we just going to sit around and stare at each other until we go crazy and it becomes interesting?"

It's been almost three weeks since Valentines Day, and this is probably the first time I've seen Hirokazu more agitated - and with less reason that I can see - than he was then. I'm not really all that anxious to spend more time with him, to be truthful.

"I've got homework," Kenta begins.

He isn't given a chance to finish; his best friend pounces on that almost before it's completely out of his mouth. "You have homework every time we try to hang out! What's the matter, we're not good enough to ditch it for any more?"

"Hey, what's your problem anyway? All I said was that I have homework; I didn't say anything about ditching anyone!"

"Yeah, well, you'd better not."

I shake my head. "Look, Ryo and Ruki aren't even coming today, and Juri's sick… Why don't we just call it a day, and do something tomorrow instead? It's not like it'll kill us to be apart for one night."

Takato nods, looking relieved. I don't think he was any more anxious to hang around Hirokazu than I was. "I've got a test tomorrow that I still need to study for," he adds. "So that'd work out perfect. Okay?"

"Fine by me," Kenta agrees, shrugging.

Hirokazu gives him a look like someone who's just been betrayed and is not at all happy about it, but doesn't comment. "Whatever. If you guys wanna hang out all with only yourselves for company, it's not going to be my problem when you all go nutso."

"Well, I’m glad that's settled." I turn a bit and roll my eyes upward so only Takato can see. He snickers in response. "See you guys tomorrow."

"Wait - hold on a second, Lee!"

I pause, more than a little startled, and turn around to face Hirokazu again. "What?"

He hesitates - only for a moment, though. "I need to talk to you about something. You mind?"

I glance at the others. Takato looks baffled, and Kenta just blinks at me. Neither of them seems to have any more idea about the reason behind this unexpected request than I do. "Sure, I guess. Come on."

I can still feel them staring after us as we leave.

Not that I blame them. If I weren't the one walking away, I'd be staring too.

"Man, you'd think those guys never saw us talk before, huh?" Hirokazu catches up to me, glancing over his shoulder at the others.

I raise an eyebrow at him. "When was the last time you wanted to talk to me specifically?"

He ignores that. "Look, this isn't just a social thing - I need advice, all right? But I can't ask Takato because he's a hopeless twit, and Kenta's kind of out of the question. There's no way I'm asking Juri, because she'll spread it around the school. Ruki would smack me around for trying, and Ryo would laugh at me. So that leaves you."

"I can't tell you how honored I am," I answer wryly. My interest has been caught, though. Kenta's out of the question? That gives me some idea of what this is about… "So what kind of advice do you need?"

"Well, I've sort of got this problem, see, and - "

"Another one?" I can't resist that one.

He scowls. "Hey, are you gonna help me or just make jokes at my expense here?"

"I'm sorry." I don't wipe the smile off my face, though. "Go ahead."

"Okay." He gives me a suspicious look, but doesn't let it keep him from talking. "I figured it'd be a good idea to ask - uhh, this person I like - if they'll date me, so I asked, and - "

"You asked Kenta on a date?" I have to admit, I wasn't expecting this. "What'd he say?"

"Well, he - hey!" Hirokazu glares at me. "How'd you know it was Kenta?"

I shrug. "I knew you liked him. Anyway, go on."

He looks disgruntled, but apparently he really does want my help, because he doesn't gripe at me any more. "I couldn't convince him I wasn't joking," he says petulantly. "Now is that dumb or what? Why wouldn't he believe me?"

I can think of several reasons off hand... "What did you say when you asked him?"

"Nothing special." He shrugs. "We were talking about that stupid White Day dance the school's having next week and how retarded it's going to be, and when the conversation got to a good place for it, I said, 'Hey Kenta, want to spend that night with me and be my love toy?'"

I have to fight the urge to wince. "You actually said that to someone you want to go out with?" I start to feel very sorry for Kenta at that point. "And you expected him to take you seriously?"

"It's not that bad!" he protests, looking injured. "Anyway, Kenta should know me well enough to know that's the sort of thing I say, right? I mean, how long have we been friends for? Huh?"

I sigh. "Kenta probably knows you well enough to know that that's the sort of thing you'd say as a joke, too," I point out, raising an eyebrow at him. "Right?"

He opens his mouth to argue with me, but for once, nothing comes out. He shuts it again, shoulders slumping. "Aw, man..."

"Don't stress out over it," I say, patting him on the shoulder. "If you want him to know you're serious, why not make him something for White Day? If you put a lot of effort into it, he's got to know you're not just joking, right?"

"Eh?" He blinks at me. "Hey, yeah!" Abruptly, he's grinning like mad again. "Kenta will never be able to resist Super Hirokazu and his homemade - his homemade - uh." He pauses. "Hey, what am I supposed to make him, anyway?"

"Chocolate?" I suggest.

"Do I look like someone who'd know how to make chocolate?"

I can't help but inwardly agree that he doesn't. "I'll teach you if you want."

"Yeah?" Hirokazu looks interested - then his eyes narrow. "Wait just a second here! I see what's going on!" He doesn't give me a chance to answer. "You're trying to get blackmail material on me, aren't you? Admit it!"

I roll my eyes upward. Why me? "Would it make you feel better to know something that I don't want spread around?"

"Seriously?" He studies me warily for a second, then leans back a bit. "What's that?"

"Know that scarf I got for Valentines Day?" I begin. "Well, I know who gave it to me, but I didn't say anything, because - "

"You know about Takato!?" he interrupts, suddenly googling at me. "How'd you find that out?"

"I saw him rewrap it in the park," I answer, a little surprised at his reaction. "How did you find out?"

"Duh, he told me." Hirokazu waves a hand impatiently. "How come you didn't say something, if you knew all along? And how long did you know he liked you, anyway? And hey - if you're pyschic and can just tell these things, want to let me know how Kenta feels about me?"

"I'm not psychic. I'm just a good guesser." I shrug. "I didn't have a clue about Takato until I saw him in the park, but I guess a lot of the time it's harder to see when it's personal. Know what I mean?"

"Whatever you say." He tucks his arms behind his head, and proceeds to ask the question I was about to answer before he interrupted. "So how come you never said anything?"

"I don't really know what to say," I admit. By that point we've reached my apartment building, so I turn and lead him up the stairs. "If I tell him I know about it, I'll have to come up with some sort of reply, right? I'm not ready to do that yet, so I thought I'd keep my mouth shut. It’s worked so far."

"Yeah, right. So is the fact that you know it's Takato who made it part of the reason you're still wearing the dumb thing even though it's March already?"

I decide not to answer that. The question isn't one I'm really comfortable with yet.

"First thing we need to do is check and make sure we have all the ingredients," I point out, opening the door and stepping into the apartment. "Keep your shoes on for now, because if we don’t have everything, we're going to have to head to the store and pick up whatever we're missing."

Hirokazu makes an impatient noise. "Why bother? Can't we just scrounge up something with whatever's in your kitchen?"

… This is going to be a long, drawn-out lesson.

~~~~~~

Naturally enough, one lesson is not enough. Over the next few days, Hirokazu is at my house from after school until supper time, taking up whatever part of the kitchen isn't already being used for making dinner to try and create chocolate fit for human consumption.

Needless to say, the first three attempts ended up in the garbage. Even the stray dogs that hung around the alley by our building didn't deserve to eat that.

"I don't get this overkill stuff," Hirokazu tells me, trying to be careful about measuring out the sugar. "Some of that last stuff could stand to be sweeter, couldn't it? Why not just add a little extra?"

"Because if you don't follow the recipe, it won't taste right." I honestly didn't know before this that I was capable of so much patience. "You have to make your measurements exact - or you'll end up making another mess of it. Just be more careful with the cocoa this time, okay?"

"Hey, at least last time we got to the point where we could let it set," he mutters, glaring at the half-ready batter. "That's progress, right?"

"Yeah, but that's only half the battle. You don't want Kenta to turn blue and keel over when he eats them, do you?"

"Don't tempt me - he's the reason I'm putting myself through this hell, remember?"

"You're the one who wants him to take you seriously," I remind him. "Think of how he'll look when he sees how much effort you put into these just to make him happy."

He makes a face, roughly stirring in the sugar. "If he doesn't run screaming."

"That's a possibility. Don’t dwell too much on it, though."

This batch ends up setting properly, but the end result tastes something like baking chocolate. Not enough sugar.

"I told you it needed more!" Hirokazu complains. "Man, this is taking forever! Can't I just get him a card or something?"

I shrug. I'm almost ready to give up myself. "If you think that'd work."

"Why the hell would a card work when he wouldn't believe me just telling him?" He flops into a chair, scowling. "This is the dumbest thing I've ever done in my life."

"I find that hard to believe." I run a hand over my eyes, feeling tired. One more thing to try… "How about if I make a batch tomorrow, and you watch me? Maybe you'll pick it up if you can just observe instead of jumping right in."

"Whatever. Anything's worth trying now, I guess." He doesn't look too optimistic. "What we were doing up until now sure wasn't doing much good."

"Three more days until White Day," I add. That holiday is actually going to be on a Thursday as well, since it's not a leap year. "We're running out of time. If this doesn't work, you'll have to go with the card. I can't work miracles."

"Well, what good are you then?"

I choose not to answer that.

"He's coming over to your house again?" Takato gives me a very weird look as we walk to school. "What are you guys doing over there, anyway?"

I shrug. I'm not sure how much he knows, but if I start giving away Hirokazu's secret, he might decide to go give out mine, too. "Just stuff. Nothing major."

"But we always do something on Mondays!" He frowns at me, only marginally able to keep his eyes on the sidewalk in front of him. "How come you guys are suddenly so chummy all the time, anyway?"

Uh-oh… I recognize that expression. Even if I didn't know how Takato felt, I'd know what the look on his face means. That is jealousy. And while it's kind of flattering in its own way…

"We're not really," I tell him, keeping my voice casual. "I'm just helping him out. He wanted to learn how to make chocolates for White Day."

Jealousy gives way to astonishment. "Hirokazu is making chocolate!?"

I can't help but grin. "Weird, huh? I think I'm supposed to keep my mouth shut about it, so don't go spreading it around, all right?"

"Sure." At least he doesn't look so put-out any more… Takato always looks best when he's happy. Or at the very least, not totally miserable. "I can't believe that - Hirokazu making chocolate. Wow." He gives me a sympathetic look. "You must be going crazy."

"I think I went crazy before that," I tell him wryly. "Or I wouldn’t have agreed in the first place."

And as it turns out, Takato isn't the only one baffled by all this…

"I thought you said we were going over to your place to play video games today!" Kenta protests, ignoring the lunch tray in front of him in favor of staring at his best friend.

"Yeah, well, my plans changed," Hirokazu replies airily. "Anyway, I can give you a rundown of how things would've gone. You come over; we play; I kick your ass. The end. We're probably all going to be doing something tonight - I'll see you then."

Kenta frowns. "Well, how about I come over on Tuesday, then?"

I look up a bit. Tuesday is when Hirokazu's going to try to make his own chocolates again - after he watches me today, and hopefully gets the right idea of how to do it himself.

"Sorry, but my Tuesday is booked, too. You snooze you lose - I'm a busy person, you know."

"And you got mad at me for wanting to do my homework? What are you two so busy with all the time, anyway?"

"That is none of your business." Hirokazu sticks a finger in Kenta's face. "If I wanted you to know I'd tell you about it. And since I didn't, I don't. Got it?"

The shorter boy looks annoyed, confused, and even a bit hurt. "Well, fine then!" he shoots back, turning away and stabbing his fork at his meal.

Silence.

"You two aren't fighting, are you?" Juri asks them, looking concerned.

"No!" They both answer that at the same time, in matching indignant tones - then turn to face each other.

"Are we fighting?"

"I don't know. You tell me."

There's about a two second pause.

"Dude, no way."

"We just don't fight."

"At least not so it lasts more than a couple minutes, anyway."

"Unless you're stealing my cards again."

"I said I was gonna give 'em back! If I were stealing them, you'd never see them again, dumbass!"

"Who are you calling a dumbass?"

"You - dumbass!"

And two minutes later it's as if the incident never happened.

Thank goodness at least some things are still predictable.

~~~~~~

"So - wait! You do that first?"

I'm starting to see why the other attempts were such failures. I should've been paying more attention. "Yes," I reply - correcting one of his misconceptions for about the fifth time since we started.

"Dude, how come you never told me any of this before, huh?"

I concentrate on the bowl, and try not to think about smashing it over his head. I'm generally a non-violent person, but even a strict pacifist would be sorely tempting to resort to violent measures when trying to teach Hirokazu how to make chocolate. "Maybe you should take notes."

"Hey, good idea! Got any paper around here?"

I show him where the paper is. Trying to scribble stuff down miraculously manages to keep him quiet - except for the usual complaints and general babble. It's not hard to tune those out, though.

I can't believe Takato would ever, even blinded by a crush, think that he should be jealous of Hirokazu when it came to me.

It's strange to think of at all - Takato being jealous over me, I mean. How would he react if I got myself a special someone for real? It wouldn't make him happy… that's for sure. The thought twists a knot up in my stomach. I don't want to be the one to make Takato unhappy. I mean, I don't want anyone to make him unhappy - but if it's me, then I'd feel guilty as well.

The best expression on Takato's face is always a smile.

"Hey, Lee, how much do you stir these dumb things, anyway?"

I blink at Hirokazu for a minute. "Huh? Oh… sorry. I was thinking about something else." I don't give him a chance to get on my case for that. "That's probably a bit longer than you're supposed to stir them for, but they should still turn out okay. Can you get the molds for me?"

"Sheesh, suddenly I'm your maid?" Despite the griping, he does what I asked. "Just 'cause you're teaching me how to make chocolate doesn't mean I somehow become your personal slave, all right?"

"Thank god," I say, fervently. "Anyway, this part's easy, so you can head home if you want. I don't think you'll get much entertainment from watching me pour chocolate into molds."

"You're telling the truth there." He shrugs. "See you."

"Yeah, later tonight." I start the pouring. It looks like it's going to turn out well - I can't help but steal a taste. Not too bad. If I were planning to give someone chocolates for White Day, I'd have a good batch right here.

I get a brief mental image of Takato's expression if I told him I was giving homemade chocolate out.

Not so good.

But then again… What kind of expression would he get if I gave him homemade White Day chocolates? The thought makes my stomach jump around, but I can imagine his smile at that. A small smile at first… maybe sort of awkward? Disbelieving? Knowing Takato, he might even almost cry. He can get pretty emotional sometimes. I can see that, yeah, his eyes being suspiciously shiny and a huge, happy smile making them light up… It's almost like he's standing right there with that same look on his face right now.

But that'd be weird, right? Sure, it's nice to think about how happy he'd be, but… well…

Why am I thinking about him now, anyway?

My hands are shaking. I've finished pouring the chocolate by now, so I set the bowl down. Where did this come from, all of a sudden? Thinking about Takato, and then having it effect me like this…

"Don't forget to clean that out, Jenrya," my father reminds me as I put the molds aside. "Before you leave the kitchen, not after."

"I know, Dad." I make quick work of that, and escape to my room.

One good thing about homework: you don't really have room for much else in your brain while you're doing it.

~~~~~~

"Hold on! Wait just a second!" Ryo holds up both hands, one clutching Takato's mini notepad and the other holding a pen. "I didn't catch all of that… Juri, you wanted what?"

The girl smiles at him. "A strawberry sundae, please!"

"Okay. And Kenta?"

"The same, but chocolate fudge." He adjusts his glasses and beams. The evening's gone pretty well for Kenta so far - he claimed a victory over Juri during the video game tournament, which meant he didn't finish last again.

"Triple chocolate fudge!" Hirokazu declares, grinning across the table at his best friend. "You don't aim high enough, Kenta."

Kenta smiles right back. "Well, excuse me for wanting a little ice cream with my chocolate sauce."

"That just might be the craziest thing you've said all night. Who can have too much chocolate sauce?"

"I'll take a banana split," Ruki orders.

Ryo grins at her. "Want to share a big one?"

"Oh brother." She rolls her eyes, but doesn't seem all that annoyed. "You've got to be kidding me - share with you? I think I'll pass." The tone of her voice is not at all serious.

"Don't tell me you're still upset that I beat you in the last game." The sidelong glance Ryo sends her way holds a definite challenge.

"I'm just trying to make you over-confident so it's easier to kick your ass next time," Ruki says, the corners of her mouth turning up in a smirk.

"Sure." He laughs a bit, and looks at Takato, who is sitting in between Kenta and Juri at the opposite end of the table from me. "Takato?"

"Put me down for a caramel swirl." He smiles, lips curling up a bit the way Ruki's had - but into an easy sort of expression rather than the smirk. Then he rests his face on one hand - with the elbow propped up on the table - looking perfectly content.

And I'm sitting across from him - noticing all of this.

"Jenrya?"

"Huh?" I blink a bit, and quickly look away from Takato's face. "Oh - I'll just get a dipped vanilla cone, thanks."

"That's all?" Ryo raises both eyebrows. "You can get something bigger if you want - I'm buying, remember?"

I shrug. "I'm not really all that hungry."

"All right, whatever you say." He finishes writing our orders down, and glances around. "That's everything, then?"

Hirokazu leans forward. "Why, are you offering more?"

"I don't think I have that much money," Ryo admits, shaking his head. "I'll be right back, guys."

"Aw, man - talk about stingy."

"Talk about having good sense," Ruki says, raising an eyebrow. "Anyone who gives you two a free reign when it comes to food would have to be lacking a few screws somewhere."

"Us two?" Kenta protests.

If possible, that single raised eyebrow goes up even higher.

"You guys just do things together," Juri says brightly. "Like eating a lot and getting into tons of trouble with the teachers at school. And - "

"Okay, we get it," Hirokazu interrupts. "We don’t need a list, you know. As far as I can remember, we were both there for this stuff."

"Are you sure?" I ask in a completely serious tone, glancing sideways at him.

"That is really not fair!" he complains, giving me a wry look. "You shouldn't be allowed to talk like that - I can never tell when I'm supposed to take you seriously!"

"That's too bad," I say sympathetically.

"Someone make him stop doing that!"

Takato laughs, his eyes sparkling a bit - or maybe that's just the light above us flickering as it dies. "I think you were asking for that, Hirokazu," he comments.

"You wanna eat Lee's scarf, big mouth?"

The be-goggled boy grins and leans forward a bit. "I'd like to see you try."

"Hands off my scarf," I say, before the maniac next to me can act. "Or you're not coming over at all tomorrow, and then you can try and work things out for yourself."

He makes a face at me. "That's playing dirty, you know."

Juri giggles. "You would know, Hirokazu."

"He's got the rulebook for 'playing dirty' in a shrine at home," Takato adds, turning to face her and laughing a bit again. His eyes definitely have their own light - it's not just the electrical problems in the ice cream place. There's nothing fake or forced about his happiness; it's all just so carefree - so real.

There's something beautiful about that, I think. Something I'd really like to be able to reach out and touch for myself.

And that makes me think… maybe…

"I'm back!" Ryo announces, breaking my semi-trance and setting the tray down as he pulls a chair up to the end of our booth. "And I've got ice-cream - how's that for a double bonus?"

"We've all got to take the bad with the good sometimes, I guess," Ruki comments blandly.

~~~~~~

"I can't believe it!"

I can't believe it either. I scoop out another small spoonful, and taste the chocolate mixture again. "It's… good," I have to admit, after a moment of shocked silence.

"I did it!" Hirokazu stares at the bowl for a moment more, eyes wide - then his face splits into a wide grin. "Hah - that's another victory for yours truly. I knew this chocolate thing was going to be a piece of cake!"

"And it only took you a week, too." I shake my head, a wry smile working its way into my expression. "Let's get this into the molds before something happens to it."

He snatches the plastic tray up, looking thoroughly pleased with himself. "Man, Kenta's gonna just throw himself at me when I give these to him. He'll be begging for it."

He'll be begging for something, that's for sure. Personally, I think Kenta's insane just for spending so much time with Hirokazu of his own free will. They're probably a well-matched set. "If he still thinks you're joking even after all this, let me talk to him. Believe me, I'll manage to convince him."

"Yeah, I'll keep that in mind." Hirokazu waves that off, picking up the bowl to start pouring chocolate. "Thursday night is gonna be sweet," he gloats to himself, grinning cockily at the mixture he's finally created successfully.

"I guess so." I role my eyes, but can't help smiling.

"So what about your chocolates, huh?" He doesn't look up from the pouring, but there's a certain amount of self-interest evident in the tone of his voice as he asks. "What do you say we bring those out for a bit of a celebration?"

I shake my head, even though he can't see it. "I think I'll save them for White Day."

At that, he does look up - pausing for a moment. "You planning on giving them out?"

"I'm not sure," I admit. A brief memory of Takato's eyes lighting up as he laughs flies through my brain. "Maybe… I guess we'll see on Thursday, won't we?"

"I think we're probably going to see a lot of things on Thursday," Hirokazu mutters, swiping irritably at a thin line of chocolate mix that didn't quite make it into the molds.

~~~~~~

"White Day already." My father watches me as I try to fit the box of chocolates into my schoolbag. It's a standard sort of box - plain white but with a red ribbon to illustrate the fact that it’s a gift.

Even though I'm not too sure about that yet myself.

And it's too obvious that I made the gift myself. "You've got a special girl to give those to, I guess," he continues, a teasing hint in his voice.

"Something like that." I'm not so sure how he'd react to the truth - and it's not a good idea to tell him now, when I'm not even sure myself. "I'll see you later, okay, Dad?"

"Good luck with the White Day present."

"Yeah… right." I mutter that under my breath, pulling on my light spring coat - and, after a moment's consideration, grabbing the scarf as well.

I'm running short on time, and it's making me uneasy. I can imagine taking Takato's hand or smiling at him in that special sort of way… I like the idea of being able to kiss him, or just stare into his eyes like someone in a bad movie… But at the same time, I really don't know if I'm ready for all this.

But if I'm not ready, why did I bring the chocolates? Why did I spend last night making a box for them? I didn't even really think about leaving them behind when I went to school today.

Well… not seriously, anyway.

It should be simpler than this, I think - I always make things more complicated than they really need to be.

"Hey, Jen!" Takato waves at me as I approach the corner. He's there first again - just like a month ago, but without the package. Funny… I was half-expecting to get another scarf - or maybe a box of chocolates…

Wouldn't it be weird if he went and made chocolates for me, too?

"Hey," I greet him, smiling a bit. "How many White Day presents are you giving out today?"

"Good question." He grins sheepishly. "I lost my list, so I was kind of scrambling for a while… but I think I've got everyone. It's just Juri and four other girls from my classes. I'm sort of broke, so I hope they don't mind something small."

"Well, none of their gifts were really big, right?" I shrug. "No one expects anything major when you're still in junior high. At least," I add, with a bit of a wry grin, "I hope not. Because I didn't get anything big, either."

"We'll be stingy together," he laughs. I notice that he has his jacket on inside-out and hasn’t noticed yet. It's cute, though.

'Together'. I… really don't think I'd mind that.

"I doubt we'll be as bad as Hirokazu," I add, turning away so I don't get caught staring. I'm definitely not ready to be found out yet. If I'm going to do this at all, I'm going to need time. And more nerve than I think I can call up right now. "I think he forgot everything but the chocolates I helped him with."

"I still can't believe he made chocolates." Takato shakes his head. "Do you have any idea who they're for?"

"I'm not supposed to say," I reply, carefully. He'll probably find out before the day ends anyway, but I'd rather it didn't come from me. "But if everything goes well, you'll hear about it - or even if it doesn't, probably."

"Well, now I'm curious."

I grin at him. "At least you won't have to wait long to find out."

"No, that's true… Still, though." He meets my gaze for a moment. "I can't see Hirokazu giving out homemade chocolate. It's weird, you know?"

I look away quickly. Takato's eyes are an amber color that's really nice to look at. It suits him - I've always thought that. Is it really just now that I'm wondering what my thoughts about him mean? "Yeah… but I knew before he asked - that he liked this person, I mean."

"You must be pretty observant. I never saw it, and I spend more time with him than you do."

"I just notice things like that, I guess." Almost unconsciously, I tug at the scarf I'm wearing. It's a bit uncomfortable to wear now - the weather's really too warm for it.

"Oh… yeah." When I look over again, Takato is looking forward resolutely, and there's the faintest hint of red on his cheeks.

Maybe I should've tried to be less obvious.

"Well, see you at lunch!" he calls out, when we reach the hallway where we have to split up.

And down my usual hallway, the masses are at it yet again. I grimace.

I guess I should think about surviving first, and giving chocolate if that works out.

~~~~~~

"Thanks, guys!" Juri takes the small boxes that Takato and I offer to her with a huge smile. "It's been a really great White Day so far - I've got so much chocolate it can hardly even fit in my bag!"

"Who knew you'd be such a Ms. Popularity?" Hirokazu rolls his eyes upward. "Oh, that reminds me - I got you something, too. Here." He pulls a somewhat squashed chocolate bar out from somewhere in the depths of his school bag and holds it out.

Takato shakes his head. "Isn't that kind of tacky for a White Day present?"

"Hey, no one said I had to be stylish with my gifts. Anyway, Juri's the only girl I got something for."

"In that case, you could probably afford to get something a little better, couldn't you?" I suggest, raising an eyebrow.

He shrugs. "Well, I could've just blown the whole thing off, you know."

"Not after spending so much time at my house, you couldn't," I reply, one corner of my mouth quirking up. I wonder if he's given the chocolates to Kenta yet…

"Thanks, Hirokazu!" Juri accepts the gift cheerfully - probably because she already has so much decent chocolate that one less-than-fantastic present won't make much of a difference. "By the way, where's Kenta?"

Takato answers that one, even though it was directed at Hirokazu. "I think he's - "

"Here!" Kenta sets his tray down, sitting down beside his best friend and sliding his bag off his shoulders. "Sorry I'm late, guys - I just had to talk to someone after class."

There's nothing out of the ordinary in the way he's acting… So maybe Hirokazu hasn't done anything yet. Or maybe he chickened out - in which case I'll murder him for putting me through hell for no reason last week. "Who were you talking to?"

"I know who," Takato answers, before Kenta can say anything. He grins across the table. "I saw him giving chocolates to Hanako just outside the lunchroom. So were they homemade, or what?"

"Of course not!" Kenta says indignantly, flushing just a bit. "I only did it because she got chocolates for me on Valentines Day. I can't just - "

"Not get her anything," I finish, glancing quickly at Hirokazu. He's scowling like a thundercloud, and looks on the verge of saying something truly nasty about poor Hanako. "If they're just store-bought, it's no big deal, right?"

Kenta adjusts his glasses and stares at me, looking a bit surprised. I guess this is kind of a change from the teasing I offered on Valentines Day. "Yeah - and that's what I was talking to her about, too." He shrugs, still looking uncomfortable. "I wanted to make sure she didn't think we were more than just friends. I just don't think of her like that, you know?"

"That's cool." I look across the table again. I don't think I've ever seen Hirokazu look grateful before, but I get the feeling that's what the expression on his face is trying to display as he returns my gaze.

Now that's just really odd.

"Oh, that reminds me." Kenta grabs his bag again, and pulls out a small box. "Here, Juri - I got you chocolate, too."

"Thanks, Kenta!" She beams, then glances at her own overflowing bag with some concern. "Now… where should I put this…?"

I shake my head.

Everyone has problems, I guess… Some are just less immediate than others.

~~~~~~

"I'm glad that's over with." Takato lets out a long, relieved sigh, following me out of the school. We met at my locker after the last class, like usual - Hirokazu, Kenta, and Juri usually meet us at the park. "I was worried I'd forgotten someone, but I guess my memory's better than I thought."

"Can't be much worse," I joke. "I wonder if anyone was suicidal enough to give Ruki something."

He winces at the thought. "Guess we'll find out soon."

We take the path through the park instead of cutting across the grass. It's not like there's any reason to hurry; it's still pretty early, and we're comfortable with each other's company. I glance sideways at Takato - and find him glancing sideways at me. He immediately blushes and looks away, and I realize with some surprise that there's heat rising on my cheeks as well.

In a way, though… this isn't all that bad.

"So what did you want to tell me?"

I stop walking. This is the place where we'd usually leave the path and head into the playground area - incidentally the same spot I watched Takato re-wrap my Valentines present from. Except this time, Takato's with me - giving me a funny look - and through the trees, we can see Kenta and Hirokazu - sitting on the swing and leaning against the pole that's holding up the swing set, respectively.

"Jen? How come you stopped?"

"Shh." I can't explain why I'm that curious about this - but I guess I did help build up to the moment they're currently having, so I've got a right to see how it goes. I wave at Takato to be quiet and watch them.

"Well… remember last week when we were playing Final Fantasy ten on your computer?" Hirokazu tugs off his bag, trying to start off the conversation smoothly. "We need to talk about what we were talking about then. Know what I mean?"

Kenta frowns. "About the lame excuse for a White Day dance they're giving in the gym?"

"No, stupid!" Apparently, patience is not Hirokazu's strong suit. "What I said after that - remember?"

"That dumb joke you tried to pull on me?"

"That's the one - but it's not a dumb joke!" He reaches into his bag, and triumphantly pulls out a clumsily constructed box. "And this is the proof," he adds, thrusting the present in Kenta's face. "You can feel free to adore me now."

I can't help but wince. Real smooth, Hirokazu…

Kenta looks utterly baffled. "What is this?" he asks - with a certain amount of understandable suspicion. He gingerly takes the box from his best friend's hands, tugging at what I guess could pass for a ribbon.

"Chocolate." Hirokazu shrugs, then offers a cocky grin. "You didn't think I was spending so much time at Lee's house for fun, did you? The guy's a walking sleeping pill."

Oh, thanks a lot! This is what I get for helping?

By this point, Kenta's gotten the box open, and is staring at the contents as if he's never seen chocolate before. "You made this?" he says incredulously, looking up at his best friend so quickly that his glasses slip on his nose. "You made this?"

"Yes, damnit! Why is that so hard to believe?"

"Because you don't make stuff!" The shorter boy is looking at Hirokazu as if he just sprouted a third arm. "And I thought you said White Day was a stupid holiday!"

"It is," Hirokazu insists, frowning in return. I get the feeling this isn't the response he was hoping for. "But what was I supposed to do, huh? You wouldn't believe me when I just told you…"

"So…" Kenta blinks rapidly. "So you really do like me… like that?"

Beside me, Takato is holding his breath - apparently, he finds this as interesting as I do. I really hope Hirokazu doesn't mess this up… And I still don’t know what Kenta's feelings are about all of this…

"I already told you that; weren't you listening?" Hirokazu crosses his arms, looking exasperated. "This is why I always say you're slow, you know. Anyway, the offer to be my love toy still stands - we could ditch the others and do something more interesting tonight, if you - "

"I'm slow?" Kenta regains his composure, straightening his glasses and returning the annoyed look. "You're the one who thinks turning someone into a love toy is romantic! What kind of love confession is that, anyway?"

This is not going well…

"This is going pretty well," Takato whispers, keeping his voice low.

I stare at him. What?

"Hey, it's better than anything you could come up with!"

"Is not!" He sets the chocolates down carefully, and kicks against the ground to swing a bit. "Anyone could think of something better than that! 'Love toy'? Give me a break! Who wouldn't think you were joking?"

Hirokazu scowls. "Well, what would you say, if you're so good that this?"

"Well… I…" Kenta stutters for a bit, then, as his best friend opens his mouth to respond triumphantly, blurts out, "I'd say 'I really like you - because you're the coolest person I know, and being more than friends would be even better than just being friends'. See?"

The taller boy snorts, waving a dismissive hand. "That is just lame."

"It is not! Anyway, it's better than asking someone if they want to be your love toy!"

"What have you got against being a love toy?" Hirokazu asks, kneeling in front of Kenta's swing and keeping him from moving any further. "And stop that swinging - who can talk to you if you're moving around all the time?"

"I didn't say I had anything against it - I said it was a dumb way to tell someone you like them." Kenta braces both hands on the chains holding up his swing and leans forward to better address his friend. "It sounds like all you want to do is… is…" Predictably enough, he goes red and looks away.

"Hey, if you're already friends with the person, what else are you supposed to offer them?" Hirokazu points out, clamping his hands around the chains just above Kenta's. "Long, meaningful conversations? Lots of fun times? We've already got that stuff, right?"

"We don't have meaningful conversations," Kenta protests - not really sounding like he means it. He's still flushed, but seems willing to meet Hirokazu's eyes now.

I don't think I've seen two people I know stare at each other quite like that.

Now I'm the one holding my breath.

"Weren't you there for that three-hour talk about War Craft two strategy? Dude, we must've covered every plot there was, and all in one night, too!"

Kenta snickers helplessly. "That doesn't count!"

"Says who? Computer games are meaningful subjects!" Hirokazu leans forward some more and slides Kenta's glasses off, setting them aside. "Why don't you just give up already? I'm right, and you're wrong - I win, you lose. End of story."

"Yeah right. You're just - "

Whatever Hirokazu 'just' is, we don't get to find out - because he gets tired of waiting, closes what little distance remains between them, and kisses a not-really-protesting Kenta on the lips.

Actually… 'not-really-protesting' is kind of an understatement. I don't think that's the phrase you'd use for someone who lets go of the swing, wraps his arms around his best friend's neck, and proceeds to push him back to the ground while continuing to kiss him.

I let out the breath I'd been holding. Good.

"I think those two are going to manage okay from here." Takato grins at me. "I didn't know Hirokazu had a thing for Kenta, though."

"I figured it out on Valentines Day," I admit. "When he was being a jerk about Hanako giving Kenta those chocolates."

"I never thought of that." He shakes his head, glancing to where Hirokazu has rolled over on top of Kenta on the ground beside the swings. "Do you think we should risk disturbing those two, or should we just talk to the others first and let them know what's going on whenever they're finished?"

I shake my head, grinning a bit. "I think they'll have other plans tonight, anyway."

"You're probably right." He smiles back, his eyes going all light again.

Maybe it's just the mood those two caused, but looking at Takato right now… I would really like to kiss him. Just like that - out of nowhere. I want to have the right to do it. And I want to be the only one with that right.

There it is, then… after all that worrying, it's this simple. I like the sound of 'me and him'. Us.

I clear my throat a bit, realizing I'm staring. "Uh… Takato? There was something I - "

"Why are you two standing over here?" Ruki's voice interrupts irritably - and the moment is shattered.

I glance over quickly, trying to control that blush reflex. "Well…"

"Never mind." She marches past me, scowling at nothing in particular. "I'll bet Juri's late because her hoards of friends and admirers are occupying her precious time. Which means we'll be stuck waiting for her while - " She stops, catching sight of the two on the ground.

Hirokazu currently has Kenta pinned against the grass and is still kissing him with considerable enthusiasm. Ruki stares at them for a moment, her expression seeming to indicate that she thinks she should be more shocked than she is - then she makes a typically disgusted noise, shakes her head, and looks away, dismissing them entirely. "Where the hell is Ryo?"

I detect danger in her tone - which isn't too unusual, since she's talking about Ryo. "I haven't seen him."

"What did he do?" Apparently, Takato picked up on it as well.

Ruki throws her bag down on the ground and reaches inside angrily. What she pulls out is a fairly large box of expensive chocolates. "This is what!" she snaps. The tone of her voice could've made the trees flinch back.

Mentally, I start going over what I'm going to say at Ryo's funeral if I'm asked to speak.

"Hey guys!" Speak of the condemned man…

Ruki doesn't let anyone answer that - she stalks past the swing set and meets Ryo as he jogs over. "What the hell do you call this?" she demands, shaking the box roughly in his face.

He looks at the box, then up at her, offering an innocent grin. "Chocolate?"

"I can see that, you idiot!" Ruki snaps, glaring fiercely at him. "Why is it for me from you!? Didn't we go over this a month ago?"

"You said no roses," he reminds her, smiling in that odd sort of way he does around Ruki - despite her glare. "So I didn't get you a rose. I got you chocolate instead."

Sometimes I think Ryo might just be the bravest man alive.

~~~~~~

"Do you think we should tell those two we're done?" Takato glances over his shoulder at Hirokazu and Kenta - who managed to take a break when Juri arrived, but basically just used it to relocate to somewhere less exposed.

"Naw, let them have their moment." I wave a hand, grinning a bit. "They'll finish up when they're ready. Anyway, I don't think they'd appreciate being interrupted just now."

Takato shakes his head. "You're probably right. I just hope nobody brings their toddlers around here any time soon - that'd be a way to scar a kid for life."

"Isn't that the truth?" I hesitate for a moment. Now that I have time… how should I do this? It shouldn't be this hard - I know how Takato feels about me - but…

My palms are sweating. "I think my sister was inviting some friends over - mind if I walk you home before going to face that?" Why can't I just say the real reason? 'I want to spend more time with you.' It shouldn't be so hard.

"Okay." He grins. "I'm just glad I don't have any brothers or sisters myself."

"Don't rub it in." I relax a bit. "Anyway, I've got something I need to talk to you about." That's a little better. I try to gather up my nerve. This is difficult - I can see why Takato decided not to let me know he was the one who made the scarf for me.

"What about?"

We're just about to reach the main path out of the park… I stop. This is the time to do it - before I lose what courage I've worked up for myself. "Can we stop here for a while?"

"Sure." This is clearly confusing him, but he turns to face me. "What's the big secret?"

I can't say it. My tongue feels like it doesn't belong in my mouth. I can almost hear the way my heart's thundering away - it's like someone's beating a drum in the space between my ears. I slide my bag off one shoulder, unzip it, and reach inside - where the box I made last night is still sitting.

"Jen?" There's an odd sort of note to Takato's voice.

"Uh… yeah." I find my voice - in time to pull the chocolates out and hand them over, even managing a small smile. "Here."

His eyes are very wide - for some reason, looking at him now is making my throat clog up. Not again… Why am I having so many problems with talking? "Is this…?" He seems to be suffering from whatever it is I have - and it's making his hands shake a bit as he takes the box from me.

I cough, find my voice, and try to sound calm. "Actually… Hirokazu wasn't the only one who made chocolates."

"Made…" He blinks rapidly, staring at me in shock. "For me?"

"Yeah." It's easier if I tug at the scarf I'm still wearing. "It's… sort of… I mean, consider it my response for this scarf. I'm sorry I took so long to finally give it."

His eyes go even wider, and he swallows hard. "You knew?"

I nod. "Yeah." I'm saying that a lot…

And he starts blushing. "Was I really that obvious?"

"Not really." I shake my head, smiling a bit more. Now that it's out there, and he knows… I'm having less trouble. "I saw you re-wrapping it in the park. But - actually - I think I might've guessed." I tug at the scarf again. "It looks like something you would make."

His eyes go a bit soft as he stares at me. "Jen… I…"

"I really like you, Takato," I say, when it doesn't seem like he's going to finish that. I can feel myself blushing, too; it's contagious, I guess. "I thought about it a lot this month, and I'd like it if something happened between us - I mean… like that."

"Like that," he repeats. As I predicted, his eyes are getting suspiciously shiny. "I don't know what to say… Well, other than yes. I like you a lot too, Jen."

"Good." I walk forward a couple of steps, still hearing that loud pounding echoing in my ears, and hesitantly lean over him. I'm not too sure how I'd planned to do this, but his eyes shut automatically and he tilts his head up a bit - and I realize it doesn't really matter. However I do it, he's not going to mind.

So I touch his cheek a bit - experimentally - and then lean forward and kiss him.

The conversation sort of ends there.

We're probably going to have some explaining to do - and I know we're going to have to call the others, because there's no way I'm giving up the first evening of having Takato all to myself. But honestly, I'm sick of thinking about everything all at once. I wrap one arm carefully around his shoulders and concentrate on the partly-awkward, partly-exciting feeling of the kiss instead.

Who needs to think at a time like this, anyway?

 

The End