The Way Things Go

 

"You call this a party?"

Takato handed the girl at the counter her change and smiled brightly for her benefit - despite the odd look she was directing over his shoulder. "Have a nice day!" Then he turned and faced his impatient-looking friend. "I never called it a party. You called it a party!"

Hirokazu raised an eyebrow at him. "Well, you invited us all over here, and half the time you're not even around. Why'd you invite everyone if you had to work, anyway?"

Takato sighed. "Well… I didn't know I was supposed to work…"

"Uh…" Apparently the girl from the counter hadn't gone yet. "Excuse me - you didn't give me the right change."

"Oh, sorry!" He turned his back on a conversation he hadn't really wanted to be in anyway, and re-counted the change. He'd grabbed pennies instead of dimes, apparently. "Here you go," he said, handing over the missing two dimes.

"Thanks." She gave the both of them another odd look, and left the store, shoving her change into her pocket.

"How could you not know you were supposed to work? Takes a special kind of stupid…"

Takato leaned against the counter, caught up on stress for the holiday season - and just from one afternoon, too. "Mom didn't tell me - she's out buying presents, so I need to help my dad in the store." He slumped down further and frowned, feeling irritable. "You know, you can always just leave…"

"And miss the chance to rearrange the mistletoe and see you turn eight shades of red when Juri catches you under it?" Hirokazu smirked. "Not a chance, man. Watch where you stop when you come back in, huh?"

Not a welcome turn in the conversation. Takato turned back to the counter to avoid giving away his discomfort. I never told him about that, though, did I? Juri was too nice to talk about it, and he was too embarrassed, and the only other person who knew about it didn't talk about other people's private business, anyway. So no one was going to find out, and then whenever he found someone else - or Juri found someone at all - they'd all want to know what had happened.

Heck, maybe by then he'd feel like talking about it.

"Hey, what's with the silent treatment, Takato? Is this how you treat your friends - who've given up their precious spare time to join you in celebrating this festive season - when they try to do you a - "

"Almost closing time, Takato!" His father poked his head out of the back area, wiping his hands on his apron. "You can get back to your friends - I'll watch the front."

"Thanks, dad." He slid off his own apron and hat, and hurried past Hirokazu, trying to avoid being forced back into the conversation. "Come on, you wanted me to get back, right? Let's go."

"About time." Once again, Hirokazu's habit of discarding worn-out conversation topics worked for him. "Come on, I want to see if anyone's - sweet!"

Takato stopped as they came into the back room - actually, everyone had just stopped. There were only five other people in the room: a predictable five, actually. Hirokazu's voice carried pretty well, and the thin, familiar form of a wary Kenta had frozen in mid-reach at the snack table.

"The chicken has stepped into the slaughter house!" Hirokazu declared, pointing across the room at him triumphantly. "Get ready to hand over your forfeit, my careless little friend!"

Kenta's gaze snapped up automatically, to the ceiling.

Mistletoe.

Takato winced. Geez, Kenta's getting careless…

Abruptly, the plate with the bespectacled boy's treats was dropped to the floor, and its owner was bolting for the door. Mistletoe did not mean the same thing to Hirokazu as it did to any normal person.

"Get back here and take it like a man, you wimp!"

Takato hastily stepped aside as the fifteen-year-old beside him took up the chase.

"AGH! Get away from me, you crazy freak!"

"Not a chance! You know the penalty for lingering in the forbidden zone!"

"I'm serious! Get awa - MMPH!" There was a loud thud from somewhere beyond the far door.

Silence.

On the couch beside Ruki, Juri covered her mouth and giggled.

"Well, there's the entertainment for tonight," Takato said with a bit of a wry grin, waving a hand in that direction. "You don't even have to rent a movie with those two around."

"No, you get the headache for half the price," Ruki said, rolling her eyes. She pushed herself up and replaced Kenta at the snack table - avoiding the strategically placed mistletoe and managing to make it look like she wasn't trying to avoid it. "So are we sitting around talking until your Mom comes home and kicks us out, or what?"

"Ah… no!" Takato looked around quickly, trying to remember where he'd put the things he'd planned to have available for that night. "I've got games - if you guys don't mind; I mean, maybe we're getting a bit old…"

"You're never too old for games!" Juri smiled brightly at him.

It was kind of strange not to have his stomach do flips at the sight. "Yeah, well… I've got DVDs and video games - I thought we could have a tournament, like at the arcade, so I rented a whole bunch of stuff. The movies are for later."

"What kind of games did you get?" Ryo asked curiously, sitting down on the arm of the couch as Ruki took back her own seat with a full plate.

"Nothing I can't beat you at," she responded automatically, before Takato could say anything.

"Yeah, you wish."

"Uh… just a minute… I'll check." Where the heck had he put that stuff, anyway…?

"Are you looking for the bag you were putting in the closet when I first got here, Takato?" Jenrya was giving him an amused sort of look - not really in a malicious way, but it made Takato's cheeks heat up all the same.

"Oh - yeah. Just wait a second, guys, I'll get it!" He hurried back out of the room, not really sure if he was running from the embarrassment or his best friend's fond exasperation at his forgetfulness.

Maybe both. They seemed to go together.

"Hey, does someone want to go break up Hirokazu and Kenta before my dad finds - "

"What th - ? TAKATO! WHAT ARE YOUR FRIENDS DOING!?"

"Too late," Takato muttered to himself with some resignation, retrieving the bag. Oh well…

Hirokazu was already sauntering back into the room by the time he got back, twirling Kenta's glasses around one finger and smirking for no reason in particular. "Well, that went well," he remarked, taking the only armchair in the room with the air of a reigning monarch seating himself at his throne.

Kenta stumbled back into the room shortly after, clutching at the doorframe and looking more than a little disheveled. "Give me back my glasses, you bastard!" he all but wailed, taking a few blind steps back into the room.

"Hey, you shouldn't have tried to get away from your fate, Kenta - you've only got yourself to blame."

"Can't you do anything in a sane manner?" Takato asked wryly, as Jenrya helped Kenta find a safe place to sit down and try to stop hyperventilating. "There's a time and a place for making the person crazy enough to date you suffer humiliation, you know."

"I'll bet the staircase in Takato's house while his unsuspecting father wanders around isn't it," Ryo commented, with a bit of a grin.

As if on cue, Takato's father's voice interrupted the discussion. "Takato, can I talk to you out here for a moment?"

"Oh great…" Takato set down the bag, and turned to leave the room again. "Well, you guys go ahead and decide what you want to start with - I'll be back when I've been lectured."

~~~~~~

"That," Hirokazu announced flatly, before the ending credits of the current movie had started rolling - or even before the hero had finished his last piece of dialogue, "was crap."

Kenta shifted beside him, either trying to get more comfortable or trying to find a way to escape the taller boy's embrace - which looked more like a wrestling hold from where Takato was sitting. He had been trying to get up and go to the bathroom for the past ten minutes.

However, interrupting a movie - even a bad one - for something as insignificant as a biological need went against everything Hirokazu stood for.

It was kind of funny how many things went against everything Hirokazu stood for.

"It wasn't so bad," Juri began, hesitating as she tried to find something worth complimenting about the two hours of wasted camera film they'd just witnessed.

"Sure, if you're not counting the part between the previews and the ending credits." Ruki succeeded where Kenta had failed and got up to grab one of the last handfuls of the snacks. "On second thought, scratch that. The previews were pretty bad, too."

"I guess you're right," Juri had to concede, smiling a bit as the other girl sat back down beside her.

Takato shifted the pillow he'd arranged between his back and the front of the couch. There wasn't enough room on there for more than three people, Hirokazu and Kenta had stolen the armchair, and the room was too cramped for more furniture. Since he was the host, he'd been elected to sit on the floor, and - after a brief battle of 'who's more of a nice guy' with Ryo - Jenrya was sitting propped on another ugly yellow-brown feather pillow beside him.

"You guys want another movie?" Takato suggested, letting his gaze move around the room to avoid fixing it on anyone in particular. It was dark - the lights were out, and shutters on the window were down - and that darkness combined with the glow from the screen always seemed to give people a mysterious sort of look. Dark, shadowed - like black and white pictures. Bits of light seemed to slide over their faces, and their eyes almost held a certain luminous quality that you couldn't see in normal lighting.

It could make plain people look beautiful, and beautiful people look… more beautiful.

Takato didn't want to be caught staring. Well… not yet, anyway. Maybe not ever, depending on how things turned out for him this year.

Hopefully it's nothing like last year… He kept his eyes away from Juri. There was still feeling there, yeah - just not the same way, and there were times when he really didn't like looking at her. This time of year made those times come up a little more often.

"Can I go to the bathroom before you do that?" Kenta asked plaintively, still squirming a bit but not actually struggling any more.

Hirokazu pulled back his arms and stretched widely, as if releasing Kenta had nothing to do with why he'd moved them. "What else did you get?" he asked Takato, then added in the next breath, "And if it sounds like it's going to be anything like the one we just watched, I don’t even want to hear about it."

Jenrya leaned forward and picked up the bag with the rest of the movies. "Have a look for yourself," he suggested, holding it out for Hirokazu to take as Kenta jumped up and all but ran from the room.

Ryo reached out and grabbed it before the younger boy could react. "Here, I'll tell you about them," he offered, shot a lazy sideways grin at the redheaded girl beside him, and pulled out a video.

"Why do I have a bad feeling about this…?" Jenrya murmured wryly, not loud enough for anyone but Takato to hear him.

"This one," Ryo announced, squinting at the cover, "looks like some kind of romantic movie - "

"Romantic?" Hirokazu repeated, in his most disgusted tone. "Takato!"

This wasn't really what he'd been expecting… "But I didn't - "

"It's about a girl watching movies with her friends," Ryo said, in a louder voice, and with a completely straight face. "She's one of those pretty, red-haired girls who pretends to be tough but is really just a complete romantic at heart who's madly in love with the charming charismatic guy sitting right beside - "

The older boy had enough sense to duck as Ruki whipped one of the ugly feather pillows at his head.

Hirokazu wasn't quite as good at predicting the future, though, because the pillow that had just narrowly missed Ryo received no interference before smacking him square in the face.

"HEY! What gives?"

Takato covered his mouth and snickered.

Predictably enough, Hirokazu was not content with yelling; he snatched up the pillow and immediately whipped it right back at Ruki. And apparently, Ryo's psychic powers didn't show him enough of the future to be all that helpful, because he straightened up again just soon enough to catch that returning shot across the side of the head.

The pillow fell away from him before he could react, over the arm of the couch.

"Oh, you are so paying for that one…!"

Ryo was actually grinning as he reached down for a new weapon - so Takato wasn't too concerned about the battle. Jenrya had more reason for worry, though, because the pillow Ryo was reaching for was the one he had tucked in behind him.

"Hey, wait a minute… I was just… hey!" Instinctively, Jenrya grabbed the pillow before it could be completely snatched away, twisting as he did and getting an odd grip on it - as if he were trying to pull it sideways instead of toward him.

The pillows were a set that belonged to Takato's mother - old, worn, and sewn up in places. They'd seen a lot of weathering and abuse - particularly when Takato had been young - and the current stress was clearly too much for this one. The half-serious struggle between the two came to an abrupt end as the material ripped in a spot close to where Ryo had been holding onto it, leaving the older boy holding less than half of the fabric and a handful of feathers.

Jenrya hadn't been prepared for that either, because he was pulling too hard - and the remains of the pillow whipped back from the center of the struggle and swung sideways, the bulk of the feathers flying free of their captivity.

Takato had about enough time to let out a yell and bring up his hands, before he, half of Juri's legs, and the rest of that general area were covered in a shower of feathers.

Silence fell.

Jenrya just sat there clutching the torn pillow for a moment, eyes huge. "Oh no… I'm sorry, Takato…"

"Uh… it's… it's okay…" Takato managed a weak smile, brushing feathers out of his face. "I… was not expecting that," he admitted, glancing around to see what kind of damage had been done.

Hirokazu broke the moment completely by snickering. "Oh man, you should see yourself, Takato! You look like someone who's just been tarred and feathered - without the tar."

"Thanks a lot, Hirokazu…" Takato said dryly. He brushed at the pile of feathers in his lap, belatedly remembering that he was the one who'd eventually have to sweep them up.

"What a mess…" Juri's voice was almost cautious; she tried to scoop some of the feathers into a semi-neat pile. "I hope your mom doesn't get too mad at you."

"We probably shouldn't have been fighting with the pillows, should we?" Ryo apologized, in a sheepish tone. "Sorry, Takato."

"It's all right - don't worry about it. Not like anyone's hurt."

"Unless you count that pillow," Ruki added, voice wry. "It didn't have some kind of sentimental value or something, did it?"

"No, it's just another pillow." Takato tried to brush the rest of his mess into Juri's pile. "I don't think mom or dad will care too much - they'll just give me a lecture about being more careful, and leave it at that. Nothing to worry about, really."

"You've got this stuff all over you." Jenrya smiled a bit - apologetically - and moved to pick stray feathers off of Takato's shirt and out of his hair.

That action caused an abrupt halt of all current thought patterns.

"Um…" Takato fervently hoped that no one would notice how strained his voice sounded. Jen's hands were gentle and careless - this was just a friendly gesture, after all… But he was closer now, blocking out the view of anything else - at least, it seemed that way. Lately, it was hard to look at anything when Jenrya was in the line of his sight. At the moment, he seemed like a colorless, flawless vision outlined by shadows and with a warmth somehow suggested by the way his face and body were shaped. A set of calm grey eyes - made brighter and more noticeable by the dark shades around them - stared directly at Takato's face, pinning him with their depths and with his own helpless attraction to them.

His stomach fluttered into activity, and for a moment, he forgot what he was going to say.

"Hey… what happened?"

Trance broken. Takato looked up to where Kenta stood in the doorway, staring in perplexity at the mess of feathers that still littered the room.

"Oh, nothing. We were just attacked by a flock of mad chickens," Hirokazu answered glibly, grinning. "Seriously, Kenta, you should've been here - I can't believe you missed out. Actually, I'm surprised you didn't hear them squawking all the way out in the bathroom."

That effectively ended the moment.

"Oh, give me a break! Mad chickens? How stupid do you think I am, anyway?"

"You really want me to answer that?"

"Maybe…" Takato finally found his voice, but the first attempt to use it came out sounded just a bit strangled. He cleared his throat, and tried again. "Maybe we'd better call it a night, guys."

And that was it for the evening.

~~~~~~

"You didn't really need to stay and help, you know." Takato swept his pile of crumbs onto the dustpan and moved over to dump them into the garbage. "I could've managed okay."

"Yeah, but it was still partly my fault that we got feathers everywhere," Jenrya reminded him with a rueful smile, tucking the knotted bag of down he'd just swept up into the garbage. "You can tell your mom I'll pay for a new pillow, if she's really mad."

"No, it's okay - she's been trying to get my dad to replace those old things anyway." Takato shrugged, tugging the last of the candy wrappers out from between the couch cushions. "Now she'll have an excuse to get a new set of ugly pillows."

"You know what they say about dark clouds and silver linings." Jenrya grinned, wiping off his forehead. "I think that's about it - we're done."

Takato moved to drop his piece of trash into the can, eyeing his friend and trying not to be suspicious about it. "Do you want to stay for dinner?"

"Thanks, but I should get going." The taller boy didn't seem to notice anything off, at least. Should that be a relief, or a bad sign? "We've got family coming in - I think my aunt will be here for tonight."

"Sounds like fun." Wimp! the little voice at the back of his head - the one that sounded suspiciously like Hirokazu at times - taunted him. "I guess I'll see you later, then."

Jenrya turned, tugging his coat on. "Four days from now, right?"

Takato's stomach flipped.

"Christmas Eve?" his best friend went on, tilting his head to the side and studying him with quizzical grey eyes. "That's when we always meet up, isn't it? Or maybe you don't want your present this year…"

"No, no, I do!" Takato stumbled back a step and almost tripped on his father's winter boots. "Sorry, I'm just a little spaced out - I mean, this is the time of year when everything's really crazy, right? But, that is to say, um, I'm not going to stand you up or anything - uh! I didn't mean that the way it sounded! I mean… that is…"

Jenrya laughed. It was a comforting sort of sound. "Takato, don't worry about it," he said, smiling with that particular warm affection that characterized him around those he was closest to. "It's that whole thing with Juri, right? I know that happened around this time last year - so the memories have to be distracting."

"Oh yeah - distracting." Try terrifying. Takato shoved his hands together nervously, wishing history didn't have that nasty habit of repeating itself. Or not, if he never actually did anything this time. "Well, I'll see you in four days - probably before then, if we get together with the others."

"Probably." Jenrya tossed a smile over his shoulder as he walked out the door, and waved. "See you later!"

"See you!"

The door shut. Takato sank down against the wall, until he was sitting on his mother's fuzzy ankle boots. Great… Why was this so difficult? Why was asking someone you really cared about to be your after-Christmas date something that made a person's insides twist around until they couldn't even speak?

Maybe because the last time you did it, it didn't turn out so great.

Takato rested his forehead on his knees, feeling like he was ten years old again instead of fifteen. He should've grown up some since then… Rejection was a part of the dating thing, right? He didn't even have remaining feelings for Juri, so it shouldn't matter. He shouldn't be so scared of something as simple as asking someone out.

Jenrya wasn't Juri. It wasn't the same.

Yeah, well, it feels like it is.

It didn't help at all that it really felt like Jenrya could be the one - he was Takato's best friend, but so much more than a best friend would ever need to be. Hirokazu fit into 'friend' - so did Kenta, for that matter. Ryo and Ruki were friends. Juri - even after that horrible moment of embarrassment and disappointment and heartbreak - was a friend. Jenrya was more. He was warm and wonderful, and being near him made Takato feel like someone exceptional - just because a person as all-around special as Jenrya thought he was. It wasn't even just those things - it was everything his best friend was: calm and level-headed, sometimes indecisive and overly serious and occasionally too moody. Takato had spent a year falling for Jenrya without realizing he was falling for him until after he'd taken a good look at his fascination with staring at him.

And then there were all those lame excuses to get the casual touches… And the thinking about him before falling asleep every night… Oh, and the dreams that kind of progressed into - um…

If he were someone else, he'd think he was just plain stupid for missing it as long as he did.

Takato leaned back and rested his arms on his knees instead, letting out a long, frustrated breath. He'd thought Juri was the one, too. What made this any different? There didn’t seem to be any more hope of starting something with Jen than there had been with Juri; if anything, there had been more chance with Juri - at least she was female.

That was another thing. He stared thoughtfully at the wall, eyebrows coming down as he worried at the thought. People expected it when a guy like him nervously asked a pretty girl like Juri to be his date. And even if Juri had been surprised, it probably wasn't much of a shock. But to ask the same thing of Jenrya - who was definitely male, and not even close to being a pretty girl - wasn't exactly the same.

Then again, Jen wouldn't get excited about something like that…

Actually… out of all the things that worried him about this whole business, that one was one of the least frightening. If Jenrya rejected him, it would be genuine - because he didn't feel compatible with Takato as a person, not just because he was male.

Which was actually a hundred times worse, when he thought about it.

I really should try not to think - it doesn't do me much good, does it?

Beside him, the door suddenly swung open.

"Takato…" his mother's voice said, breaking the moment entirely and sounding both baffled and a bit suspicious. "Why are you sitting on my boots?"

~~~~~~

"How come you left it so late?" Juri asked curiously, keeping up with him as he tried to dart around other shoppers in the mall. "I got all my shopping done weeks ago - it always gets really crowded when you're this close to Christmas."

"Don't remind me." Takato pressed himself up against the railing over the drop to the floor below them, to let some of the crowd pass by before braving it again. "And I tried - I really did this year. I've only got one more present to get; I just can't figure out what to get for - "

"Jenrya." Juri leaned up against the railing and offered an encouraging smile that - a year ago - would've had him blushing and stammering like an idiot. "It's okay, Takato. I'm here to help you, remember?"

"Uh… right." Actually, Takato hadn't exactly asked Juri to help him. He'd gone to the mall to wander around aimlessly in hopes of spotting something that just screamed Jenrya, and there she had been.

And a short conversation later, she was helping him shop.

"So is there anything in particular you were thinking about?" Juri pulled him back into the crowd cheerfully, the one bag she had clutched in her left hand somehow finding room to swing and demonstrate her enthusiasm. "I mean, not a specific something, but an idea? We need to figure out what stores we're going to visit, right?"

"I… guess so." Takato let himself be dragged along, absently wishing she would just give up and leave. He liked Juri's company… but he didn't want it while shopping for Jenrya's Christmas present. "I don't really know what I wanted to get… just something different from what I usually get him, you know?"

Juri nodded, smiling brightly, but Takato was pretty sure she did not actually know. He was having a dilemma, and she couldn't help unless she had all the facts - probably not even then. Should he get Jen something normal, and give it to him before the crucial moment? Get him something less friendship-y, ask him before giving it to him, and hope for the best? Get one of each, then ask and give whichever one his answer would demand? Or get the more romantic gift, and use that as a way to ask? And just what could he get if he wanted a romantic gift, anyway?

What had he done for Juri?

"Uh… Juri?" He waited until there were safely walking again, tucked into a semi-open space in the hoard of Christmas shoppers. "This might sound kind of strange, but… do you remember what I got you last year?"

"Me?" She blinked at him. "Um… I think… candy, wasn't it?"

"Candy…" That could be taken either way, couldn't it? At least with girls. It just depended on whether or not you gave it to them in a fancy box or just the plain packaging you saw on the shelf at a regular store. "Oh. Thanks."

"Why'd you ask?"

"No reason… Just wanted to make sure I didn't get you the same thing this year." Juri's present that year was a pair of gloves - which Ruki had helped him pick out.

"I wouldn't mind - it was good candy." Juri tugged at his wrist. "Oh, look, Takato - I see the perfect gift! Over here!"

"Wha… huh?" He stumbled a few steps in surprise as she pulled him free of the shoppers and almost right into the glass display wall of one of the stores. "What are you talking about?"

"There!" Juri pointed excitedly through the glass, where a very high-tech digital camera was on sale.

… For more than Takato had for his entire shopping list, much less for Jenrya alone.

"Juri, I can't afford that! I could barely even afford half of that!"

"Oh, right…" Juri looked a bit disappointed - then she frowned thoughtfully. "Well, we'll just have to find something else!" she declared, grabbing his wrist again. "Even if we have to search the whole mall to do it!"

Takato sighed. Ordinarily, he'd be glad to go along with Juri on whatever she was so excited about, but this time…

I think this might be more trouble than it's really worth…

Only if Jenrya gave him a negative answer, though.

"Hey! I'll bet you can afford to get him some of those, can't you?" Juri dragged him through the crowd yet again, stopping in front of another store window and pointing through the glass.

Takato blinked - once. Twice. Three times.

The display did not change.

"Juri… that's underwear."

She looked up at the set of green and blue boxer shorts she was still pointing to, and back at him again. "But they're good colors for him, right?"

"I can't get Jen underwear!" Takato tried to keep his voice from going up into a higher pitch than he really wanted it to go. "That's not something you get for your best friend! You wouldn't go out and buy Ruki underwear, would you?"

"Of course not, silly!" She smiled at him - as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. "Ruki's not the sort of person you'd get that kind of present for."

"And you think Jen is?" Actually, he didn't really want to hear the answer to that. "Never mind. Just… Guys don’t get underwear for other guys, okay? That's the sort of thing you get from your mother, or maybe some girl you've been dating for a couple of years, or… something like that." She was still giving him that little smile, like she thought he was being too silly about the whole business. Takato reached out and lowered the hand that she was still holding out to point at the boxer shorts. "Let's just find something else, okay?"

"All right, if you say so." Juri's spirits did not seem dampened by this setback. "We'll go look at another store, then." And once again, she was using her hold on his wrist to pull him along into the crowd.

Why do I get the feeling I'm not going to find anything today, either?

~~~~~~

The mall was at least as crowded the next day, but somehow Takato found his eyes drawn to a familiar head of dark red hair in the food court all the same. He broke free of the sea of people and hurried back toward the table holding two of his close friends.

"Hey, Ruki! Ryo!"

Amazingly enough - considering the noise - they both looked up at that.

"Hey Takato," Ryo greeted him, pushing out one of the free seats at their table as he approached, and waving his hand at the food in front of them. "Help yourself to a roll - we've got more than we can eat, anyway."

"Thanks." He sat down, and glanced back and forth between them. "Hey, you guys aren't here on a - ?" At the last minute, he choked back the last word, trying to think of a less obvious way to put it.

Ryo laughed. "Maybe you'd better rephrase that while you still have your health," he suggested.

Ruki rolled her eyes upward. "The answer is no," she said, but her tone was tolerant. "We decided to meet for lunch after we finished our shopping - then we're heading over to the arcade. You can come along if you feel like getting trounced, by the way."

"No, that's okay." Takato picked up the offered roll and returned a rueful smile. "I just got here, and I still need to finish my shopping."

"Yeah, that should eat up the afternoon," Ryo agreed, looking out at the crowd Takato had just emerged from. "It's pretty crazy in here."

"I heard about your problem from Juri," Ruki noted, taking a sip from some hot beverage. "You want to get something different for Jen this year?"

"Uh… yeah, sort of." He took a bite of the roll and chewed, stomach knotting as his dilemma was brought back up to the surface of his mind. "I haven't been able to find anything yet," he added, swallowing. "So maybe it'll be the same sort of thing this year, after all."

Ryo shook his head. "It's not like it's that easy to find something original, is it? Just about everything out there qualifies as 'the same sort of thing'. If you want to get a different present, you have to invent your own."

"It's a little late for that now," Takato said wryly. Not that it'd help - then I'd probably worry about being cheap, too…

"Well, as interesting as I find this conversation, you'll have to excuse me," Ruki said in a resigned tone, pushing herself to her feet. "I have to go use the bathroom. It should only take me about eight years considering what kind of line-ups there are at this time of year, so don't hold your breath waiting for me to come back."

"Hadn't planned to," Ryo replied easily, leaning back in his seat and smiling when she made a face at him before moving off into the crowd. "Want to stay and keep me company for a while, Takato? Unless you've got a brilliant idea for figuring out that last present you need, that is…"

"If I did, I'd already be gone." He rested his face on one hand, with the connected elbow perched on the table. "Maybe I should just give up already." With both the present and his half-planned confession.

Maybe it would be better to do this after the Christmas season ended. He probably wouldn't feel so anxious by then, right? Out of the dangerous zone… and it wouldn't make this such an unlucky time of year for him. Two rejections in a row, at the same time of year - pretty bad, right? There were a dozen logical reasons to put this off until later. Get Jen a new computer game he'd probably like. Act like a friend for now, and ask him 'the question' later on.

It'd be such a relief…

But, for some reason, Takato had a sinking feeling that if he put it off now, he'd put it off later, too. And then it'd probably never happen.

Why do I talk myself into these things in the first place…?

"There's got to be something out there," Ryo answered him, oblivious to the conflict taking place inside his head. The older boy shrugged. "After all, it's a pretty big mall. What kind of present are you looking for, anyway?"

"I wish I knew." That was part of the problem. Takato changed the subject - sort of. "What did you get for Ruki this year?"

"A gift certificate for the theater," Ryo replied, casually. "Nothing special, really - I just figured there were a couple of good movies coming out that she'd want to see."

That hadn't been what he'd expected… "Nothing special? But don't you… uh… ?"

"Like her?" The taller boy grinned. "I could ask you the same about Juri and the not-so-exciting present you got for her, couldn’t I?"

Takato winced. "Well… there's… a reason for that…"

"Same here," Ryo pointed out, casually. "Actually, I know Ruki well enough to know she'd rather get something she could use than a cheap attempt at romance." He leaned back. "Besides, she already knows about me, so it wouldn't really make a difference anyway."

There was a lot of truth there. "Oh."

"It makes my Christmas shopping less complicated." Ryo shrugged again. "Want some more food? We'll have leftovers anyway."

"No thanks." Takato frowned a bit, caught in thoughts of presents again. Maybe he should just scrap the whole 'romantic gift' idea; would Jen really like that kind of thing, even if Takato did tell him? Ryo might actually be onto something there…

Then again, comparing Jenrya to Ruki probably wasn't such a great idea.

"The stress is really getting to you, isn't it?" Ryo interrupted his thoughts again, setting down the cup he'd picked up at some point or another. "That's the second time you've spaced out on me."

"Oh… yeah. Sorry." Takato scratched his head, feeling sheepish. "You're probably right. Just don't be too surprised if I wind up leaving the mall with the guys in white."

"I'm kind of surprised you haven't yet."

"Oh, very funny."

"Thanks." Ryo raised his cup a bit in a small salute, and took another sip.

Takato shook his head and helped himself to another roll.

"Has he managed to solve all your problems yet?" Ruki slid back into her chair, shooting a half smile at Takato as she did. "Or is he pretending he knows all the answers and just won't fill you in on them."

Ryo set down his cup and smiled across the table at her. "Why do you always assume the worst from me?"

"You haven't disappointed me yet."

"A compliment!" Ryo reeled back in feigned shock. "Well, that's the crowning point of my day. Excuse me while I go grab a milkshake to celebrate." He pushed back his chair and stood up to make his way to one of the line-ups.

Takato turned to look at Ruki, who was filling her plate again. "What did you get for him, anyway?" he asked curiously.

She looked up, pausing for a moment - then offered a hint of a smirk. "A dozen roses and one of those guys who sings the weird love songs when he delivers them."

Right… It was probably time to get shopping again…

~~~~~~

"YES! I am so the man!" Hirokazu took one hand from the game controller to thrust a triumphant fist into the air. "Another victory for yours truly!"

Kenta let out a groan, head falling forward sharply in a comic show of despair. "Again…"

Takato couldn't help but grin from where he was sitting, on the couch behind them. You'd think he'd be used to it by now… "So, that makes it… Hirokazu: 14, Kenta: 0?"

"Fifteen! Fifteen!" Hirokazu protested loudly, turning to glare at him. "Get it straight, stupid!"

Beside him, Kenta had flopped back onto the floor, still loosely clutching his controller. "Isn't it Takato's turn to play yet?"

Takato shrugged as Hirokazu shot him a speculative look. "Sure - but I probably won't be much of an opponent. I've got too much on my mind right now."

Kenta sat up again. "Like Jenrya's present?"

He blinked. "How'd you find out about that?"

"Juri told us," Kenta admitted, as he handed over the game controller and moved out of the way. "How come you want to get something different, anyway? Isn't that just like extra stress?"

Hirokazu grinned. "I got all my shopping done in twenty minutes last month," he bragged.

"Yeah, but people don't even really care what you get for them any more." Takato shook his head, smiling a bit at that. "Because they know it's going to be a half-assed effort."

"Hey! I thought about those presents for a long time before getting them, you know!"

"Sure, for about five minutes during silent reading," Kenta added, finally managing his own grin.

"For Hirokazu, that is a long time to think about something," Takato agreed, settling himself in his new spot on the floor.

"Some friends you guys are!" Hirokazu grumbled, looking thoroughly disgruntled. "Maybe I'll just take your presents back to the store and spend the extra cash on me."

"You could," Takato answered, grinning again, "but that would take longer than it did for you to buy the presents in the first place."

Kenta laughed. "He's got you there."

Hirokazu scowled. "Oh, hah hah. At least I'm not scrambling around for gifts at the last minute like some people." He set down his controller and stood. "Kenta, I'm going to raid your fridge before we get started - you've got snacks, right?"

"Hey - my mom's got labels on the stuff she doesn't want you to touch!" Kenta called hastily, twisting as the taller boy left the room. "Leave it alone this time, or I'll get in trouble!"

"Yeah, yeah, whatever!"

Takato shot Kenta a sympathetic look. "Must be tough now, since you and Hirokazu - you know."

"Added one more thing to the list of crazy stuff we do together?" Kenta took off his glasses and polished them on the cloth he carried around most of the time, shrugging a bit and not meeting Takato's gaze. "I don't know… it's not that different from before."

That was not surprising to hear. "I can't really see Hirokazu being all romantic and stuff - just doesn't fit, somehow."

"Tell me about it." Kenta's voice was wry; he shoved his glasses back on his nose and smiled at Takato. "Neither of us is, though - that's why it works for us. Besides, no one else is quite like Hirokazu; you know that."

"Thank god," Takato agreed, fervently. "Could you imagine a bunch of Hirokazus running around terrorizing innocent people?"

"Yeah, with my luck, they'd all want to raid my fridge and use my games."

Takato smiled. That'd be a definite down side to dating Hirokazu, yeah… But honestly, it didn't sound like such a bad thing, acting like just friends but with all the benefits of dating someone.

Would that be how it was if he and Jen managed to get together?

Well… then, it was worth a try… "Hey, what did you get for him, anyway?"

"Huh?" Kenta didn't look like he'd really been expecting the question. "What'd I get for him? You mean as a Christmas present?"

"Yeah." This might not be much help; after all, Hirokazu's presents had never been anything that great. Why would Kenta bother to get him something worthwhile in return? "Is it a big change from last year's? I know you said things weren't much different, but you are dating now, right?"

"Well… yeah…" Kenta scratched his head and offered a sheepish smile. "I got really lucky, because one of my dad's friends knew a guy with a used PlayStation2 game console for a really great price." He got a far-away look on his face. "I had to take the subway halfway across the city at four o'clock in the morning to get there before someone else took it. But he's gonna be thrilled when I give it to him."

Now, that… was not what he'd expected. "You got him something that nice?" Takato frowned, raising an eyebrow as he tried to puzzle that out. "Why? You know he's not going to have anything half as good for you." Not that Hirokazu was deliberately thoughtless; he just didn't have the patience for picking out a really good present most of the time. But still…

"No, but that's one thing I can do better than he can." Kenta shrugged, as if it were no big deal. "I wanted to get it for him - that's me, not him. Who cares if he's not the same way about it?"

"I dunno…" Takato hesitated, struggling to find a way to put the problem into words. "Doesn't it seem… kind of one-sided if you do that? I mean, it's like he doesn't care, but you're doing all that…" He waved a hand, as if to illustrate the other boy's effort with it. "You know."

"Not really." Apparently, this didn't bother Kenta; from the expression on his face, it was clear that he thought Takato 'just didn't understand'. "Hirokazu doesn't do stuff like that - know what I mean?"

"Yeah, I guess…" There was probably a point in all of that somewhere, under the part that was just plain weird. Something about friendship and not needing things in return, most likely.

Whatever it was, talking to Kenta about Hirokazu was enough to give Takato a headache.

"Your mom's evil, Kenta!" the teenager in question complained suddenly, making his way back into the room with a large plate in hand. "All the good stuff has those dumb labels on it. And she tried to hide some of it - can you believe that? It's like she doesn't trust me or something!"

"I wonder why." Takato peered skeptically at the plate. "Isn't that part of the cake she told us she was saving for Christmas dinner?"

"Hirokazu!" Kenta smacked a hand to his face, fear and dismay written all over his expression. "I can't believe you! I'm going to be in so much trouble, and it's all your - "

"Hey, don't you go saying it's my fault, pal - just because your mother can't be more clear with her little warning signs…" Hirokazu immediately leapt to his own defense, scowling at his significant other. "And I notice you weren't in there to make sure I stayed away from everything that - "

"What do you need, a big glowing sign that says 'do not touch'?" Kenta glared back, adjusting his glasses and looking mightily offended. "All you had to do was - "

"I did not see a warning label on this one, okay?"

"That's because she told us about it before she went out! Weren't you listening?"

"Well, she wasn't clear enough about it! Otherwise I would've remembered just fine!"

Takato stole one of Hirokazu's abandoned snacks, and didn't bother to try and break up his friends' bickering. When it came to those two, sometimes it just really wasn't worth the effort.

~~~~~~

"I can't believe it… it's Christmas Eve…" Takato sat in the armchair, slouched so low that his eyes were almost on a level with its arms. He was staring at the wall across from him.

It was Christmas Eve… nearly six o'clock on Christmas Eve, most of the shops near him were closed, and he was supposed to meet Jen at seven.

And he still had no present.

"Are you heading out to meet Jenrya?" his mother asked in a distant sort of tone, hastily pulling on her coat. "Don't stay out too late, remember - we're going to do some caroling when your father and I get home."

Takato let out something like an affirmative noise, and sank deeper into the couch cushion.

He was dead. Dead. It wouldn't be Jen who killed him - it would be his own guilt. He'd wanted to get the perfect present, agonized over it for so long, and now… Now he had nothing. It hadn't even struck him as he'd given up and left the mall - he'd been through it so many times that he'd practically memorized the displays, anyway. But now it was hitting.

I don't have a present! I'm meeting him in an hour, and I don't even have a present! I'm going to look like such a moron!

Now, Takato thought dimly, was probably a good time to panic.

"I don't see why we have to have Christmas dinner with people we hardly even know." Takato's father sounded a bit disgruntled as he tugged on his own coat. "Can't we do this another night?"

"They're family," his wife reminded him, a bit sharply. "We've got to be polite." She smiled apologetically at her son. "We won't be long, Takato - anyway, we'll all have a nice family dinner tomorrow night, all right?"

"Uh-huh…"

"Cheer up, son!" His father ruffled his hair a bit, and offered a wry look, shooting a glance her way. "At least you don't have to come along for dinner tonight…"

His mother crossed her arms and made a 'hmph' noise. "Stop that! And hurry it up, we're already late!"

"Yes, dear."

The door shut firmly behind them.

Takato jumped up like a coiled spring just released by that sound, snatching up the telephone from its customary place. "I can't meet Jen like this…" he muttered to himself, voice cracking a bit as he scrambled to dial a number in with hands that shook slightly.

"Please don't have left yet… please don't have left yet…"

"Hello?" Jenrya's older brother answered cheerfully.

"Hi!" Now that was definitely squeaky. "Um… I mean… is Jen there, please?" Please still be there…

"Oh yeah, just a second." There was a loud clunking as the phone was set down. "Jen!" Rinchei's voice called out loudly, away from the receiver. "Phone!"

Thank you… Takato let out a long breath and slumped a bit, relieved. It wasn't likely that Jen would've left that early, but you never knew. He might've been out somewhere else, and planned to go straight to the park from wherever he was.

But he's not, so don't think about that now.

"Hello?" Jen sounded a bit breathless.

Don't think about that now, either… Takato straightened unconsciously, and tried not to let his voice reflect how nervous he felt right then. Just talking to Jen made his stomach tie itself into knots. He had a really nice voice… "Hey, Jen - it's Takato."

"Hey!" The fact that the other boy sounded more than glad to hear from him didn't help, either. "I was actually just wrapping your present. What's up?"

"Oh… yeah." And the knots were starting to freeze up, too - they felt like cold lumps in Takato's stomach. He swallowed, hoping it wasn't audible over the phone. "Listen… about that… I - uh… I can't meet you tonight."

"You can't?" Jen sounded startled - not surprising, considering they'd been meeting at this time every year for the past five years. "How come?"

"Well… my… parents went out, and they want me to get some presents wrapped for tomorrow." Lying to him was even worse. Takato leaned against the wall, one hand resting lightly on his stomach as if that could somehow help the sick feeling building in there. "I think dad forgot to tell me earlier or something - or maybe I just wasn't listening, I don't know." He laughed, and it came out sounding about as weak and pathetic as he felt right then.

I'm really sorry about this, Jen… I'll make it up to you somehow - I promise.

"Oh. No problem, I guess." He couldn't place the tone in Jen's voice right then - but disappointment probably factored in there somewhere. "Give me a call tomorrow sometime, and we'll see if we can figure out when to meet."

"Okay." Maybe by then, he could figure out some excuse - or scrounge up a gift somehow. Takato shut his eyes, wishing he didn't feel like such a rat for being stupid and then lying about it to someone he was hoping to some day be with. "Well, have a Merry Christmas."

"Merry Christmas, Takato," Jen replied in that warm, affectionate tone that had been making Takato's knees go weak for the past couple of months at least.

Cheesy as that sounded…

He hung up the phone and sank back against the wall with another sigh, feeling worse than he had before he'd called.

When had this become the time of year for bad feelings, anyway?

~~~~~~

The armchair was becoming Takato's new best friend.

It was a good armchair, actually - perfect for sinking down into, especially if you were feeling particularly rotten and needed to hide from the world for a bit. And it was still possible to see the TV if a distraction was needed, too.

Yes - it was a good chair. Takato didn't appreciate the chair enough under normal circumstances. He should do something nice for it one day.

And… I'm going crazy, on top of everything else.

The doorbell rang.

"Great…" Takato hauled himself up out of the chair, slouching as he dragging himself toward the door. With my luck, it'll probably be carolers singing happy songs - just what I'm not in the mood for…

He opened the door. And the bottom dropped out of his stomach.

"Can I come in?" Jenrya asked, offering a bit of a smile.

Takato stepped aside wordlessly. Oh no… this is not good… really not good…

"Thanks. It's getting pretty cold out there." The taller boy pulled off his hat and scarf as the door was shut behind him. "I figured if you were just wrapping presents, there was no real reason I couldn't just come over and help, right? After all, it'll go faster with two people." He held out the wrapped box that had been under his arm, and smiled even more. "That, and I wanted to get your present to you before tomorrow. Here."

"Jen… I…" Takato took the present, but didn't feel like looking at it. I really don't deserve a friend like you - not after what I did… "I'm really sorry…"

"Hey, it's not your fault." Jenrya stepped out of his boots and moved into the house. "After all, you didn't ask to be stuck here wrapping - " He stopped as he caught sight of the Christmas tree, with already-wrapped presents piled beneath it, and turned back toward Takato, eyes quizzical. "Did you finish already? That was fast."

"Um… not exactly…" He couldn't quite meet his friend's gaze, feeling those cold lumps in his stomach growing larger and threatening to make him physically sick. "Actually… I lied. I didn't have to wrap presents." There was no way he could make his voice sound normal; it came out shaky and choked. "It sounded better than the real reason I couldn't meet you."

Jen was quiet for a while. "What's the real reason?" he asked after a moment, voice even.

Takato took in a long breath and looked up, determined to face his friend as he confessed. "I couldn't find a present for you."

"Is that all?" Jenrya shook his head, looking distantly relieved. "I thought it was something serious - you really had me worried. It's no big deal if you don't have a present. You can get me something later if you feel that bad about it. Or treat me to lunch some time." He shrugged, another of those reassuring smiles tugging its way onto his face. "Honestly, Takato, I don't care."

"Yeah… well… I do." Takato shoved his hands together in front of them. They felt cold, even though he knew they couldn't be. Cold and sweaty at the same time. This wasn't how he'd planned to confess his feelings… He hadn't exactly had a plan, but if he did, this wouldn't be it. Not after lying to his best friend, and failing to get a present, and stuttering like an idiot, just like he had -

Just like he had with Juri.

Takato hung his head, losing his nerve completely. I can't do this - I thought I could do it, but I can't, I'll just have to go on pretending I don't feel that way and hope it'll go away. He could hear his heart pounding loudly in his chest, and didn't dare look up again. He didn't want to see Jen's face, with its kindness and beauty and all the things he wanted now staring back out at him. Even thinking about it made it hard to breathe.

"Takato…" Jenrya set a supportive hand on his shoulder like he did whenever he thought his friend was losing it. "I already heard from Juri about all the time you spent shopping. No matter what you picked out I would've been flattered, you know. After all, how often do you spend so much of your time thinking about just me?"

"A lot more often than you'd think," Takato muttered, under his breath. And probably not the way you'd guess, either.

Jen either didn't catch that, or didn't think it sounded strange. "Cheer up. It's Christmas, after all." He squeezed Takato's shoulder briefly, fingers still slightly chilled but warming fast. "Why don't you open my present, and maybe you'll feel better." He paused for a second, and his fingers grew still. "Well, that's what I'm hoping for, anyway."

Something about the tone of his voice caught Takato's attention, and he raised his eyes instinctively, meeting Jen's clear grey ones without thinking. "Why wouldn't I like it?"

There was a good portion of uncertainty in Jen's gaze. "It just seemed like this time of year was really getting you down - I mean, because of Juri and all. So I thought this would make you feel better about yourself." He shrugged, smiled a bit more awkwardly than before, and lifted his hand to gesture toward the present. "Go ahead and open it."

Despite any and all bad feelings from before, Takato's curiosity had definitely been piqued. He tore into the wrapping paper with both hands, not bothering to try and save it like his mother usually insisted on. Underneath was a plain cardboard box, and inside…

The portable CD player he'd been eyeing for the past half a year, which he'd been afraid to ask his parents for since they didn't know he'd broken his old one.

Takato's eyes shot back up. "Jen, this must've cost you a fortune!"

"Not quite. It is the one you wanted, right?" Jenrya offered another half-smile. "Don’t start with the 'you shouldn't have's; I wanted to. You're worth it, Takato."

Maybe he should've felt bad - guilty at least. But at the moment, the only things Takato was aware of were the warm, happy feeling brought on by his best friend's words and the way his heartbeat echoed loudly in his ears. "I don't know what to say… This is just… Wow." The corners of his mouth were inching up tentatively, and that sick feeling from before was slipping away, replaced by something considerably sweeter.

He really thinks I'm worth it?

Jenrya took in a deep breath, and set his jaw, looking determined. "One more thing," he added in a voice that was almost steady, and leaned forward, reaching up to set his right hand against the back of Takato's neck.

Despite all the ways the moment had screamed out what was coming, Takato wasn't at all prepared for the hesitant touch of Jenrya's lips on his. His immediate reaction was to freeze up in shock, and the light contact - much as it sent involuntary shivers down his spine - wound up being one-sided.

Jenrya pulled back awkwardly, his hand shaking a bit as he removed it, and stared at Takato with some trepidation. "I thought you might like to know," he said in an undertone, "that just because you have one person who's not interested, it doesn't mean there isn't at least one person who is."

It was suddenly difficult to breathe. Takato blinked rapidly and set his present down on the hall table before he dropped it, watching with a sort of hazy bemusement as his best friend's cheeks developed a distinct flush. "You mean… you're…?"

"Yeah… I think you're… something…" Jenrya started to reach out again, then stopped, turned even more red, and pulled his hand back slightly as if he wasn't quite sure what to do with it. "… special. I was hoping it'd make you feel better," he added, suddenly not meeting Takato's gaze.

There was another knot building in his stomach - but this one wasn't panic or guilt, or even nervousness; it was excitement. He just said he… Jen thinks of me as… Too many thoughts - and the only one he wanted to think about was the most important: what to do now.

I never really got a chance to enjoy that kiss…

"Jen?"

Immediately, Jenrya looked back up at him.

Takato made a quick decision, put his hands on his best friend's shoulders, and leaned forward with as much confidence as he could muster while his heart was still distracting him by hammering painfully against his chest. Jen's lips were slack with surprise, but kissing was a nice experience. Even better, he discovered, as the taller boy recovered enough to help him find a way to meld them together without the leftover awkwardness that really couldn't be avoided considering neither of them had all that much experience with kisses.

Incredible… He was kissing Jenrya. His best friend. The person he'd chickened out of confessing to, but who had somehow found the courage to confess to him, even without expecting a positive response.

And now… well… This had to be the greatest feeling in the world. Takato slid his hands around to get a better grip, not sure enough of himself yet to try and pull Jenrya closer, but getting a bit of a thrill from the moving warmth under his fingers. He could taste the inside of the other boy's mouth - just a little.

It was nice.

It was Jenrya who broke this kiss - again - and he did it with twice the reluctance, moving only far enough away to stare at Takato with dazed and wondering grey eyes while he struggled to catch the breath he'd just lost.

Takato felt a bit off-center himself, but he managed what was probably a really goofy-looking smile, and stared right back. "Merry Christmas?"

The corners of Jen's mouth twitched. "You too," he replied with the barest hint of a smile, and then he was leaning down and sliding his arms around Takato's waist, and whatever else they needed to say to each other was put aside until after the rest of the kissing was taken care of.

Some presents were just too important to be saved for later.

 

The End