Simple Gifts

by Tenshi

Author's note: As Loveless is still in progress, and as I have never spent Christmas day in Japan in spite of much research of same, some liberties must be taken, and have been. Thanks.

Christmas loomed before Ritsuka with all the festive cheer of a guillotine. Beyond it was the inescapable void of the New Year's holidays, when school would be closed and his fellow classmates rejoiced in fleeting freedom. Ritsuka would rather any number of school days to vacation at home with his mother.

His father sometimes helped to keep her in check, if he was there, but more often he used the time to get work done in a quiet office (so he said) and left them both alone. Sometimes his mother only sobbed quietly for her absent son, but at least once over the course of the week she would turn on her present one. Ritsuka's only refuge from his mother's rages would be out in the chilly streets, and he invariably returned to school with a cold.

Only now, a new obstacle presented itself. In the back of his notebook Ritsuka had a very simple chart: neatly labeled presents and recipients. For his mother, a box of chocolate-covered cherries, inexpensive ones from the corner mart. They were one thing her old Ritsuka used to give her, and they earned him at least a day's reprieve from her phantoms. A keychain flashlight was for his father, not that Ritsuka had any idea what his father might want or not. Yuiko and Yayoi were both getting little photo albums filled with pictures Ritsuka had taken over the last year.

The line next to Soubi's name was blank, and had been all month. The paper was scarred and stained where Ritsuka had written in countless ideas and erased them again.

Yuiko did her best to help, even preoccupied as she was with the construction-paper snowflakes Miss Shinonome had asked them to make to decorate the classroom. "...You could make him a clay ashtray in art class?"

Ritsuka scrubbed his eraser over the paper again, even though he hadn't even written anything down. "I want a good present, not some grade-school crap!"

Yuiko's ears drooped as she looked at the lumpy dish on the corner of her desk. "...You're right. And my dad doesn't even smoke."

Ritsuka bit his tongue, annoyed that he had managed to hurt her feelings. "No no, yours is really pretty! He can use it to keep change in or something and it won't get all gross. I'm just--I just really suck at things like that. Not like you." He stared at the blank by Soubi's name, which now was thin enough now that he could see the back of his notebook through it. "But for Soubi, I want something really really great. He's done a lot for me this year." He wanted to say, He's been hurt so much for me, but Yuiko would not understand.

Yuiko unfolded a still mostly-square snowflake. "Well, he's an artist. You could buy him a sketchbook or an art kit or something."

"I'm sure he's got everything he needs, and anything I could buy would be cheap." Ritsuka slumped down into his seat, his ears flat in frustration, his hoodie bunched up behind him. "I haven't got much money."

"Maybe you could make up some coupons for him? I'm doing that for my mom. Things to do to help around the kitchen or to run down to the store or to dust the furniture, stuff like that."

"I don't think anything Soubi would want me to do for him is something I'd put in a coupon book," Ritsuka muttered into the rucked-up zipper of his hoodie, feeling red right up to the base of his ears.

"Huh?" Yuiko blinked at him.

"Never mind," Ritsuka said.

"Okay!" Yuiko said brightly, already forgetting. "Anyway. You know Soubi'd like anything you give him. It's the thought that counts."

Bullshit, Ritsuka said to himself, silently so he would not ruin Yuiko's festive mood. Thoughts don't matter for anything if you can't back it up with something.

Christmas Day was a Sunday. It dawned claustrophobically overcast and not quite cold enough to be worth the fuss, and Ritsuka slipped out of the house before his mother woke up. For days he had been making noises about visiting Yuiko or Yayoi, knowing his mother would not remember which, and he left his ribboned offerings on the coffee table. There was no tree in his house, of course, though Yuiko had made him promise over and over to come and see hers.

"It's ten feet tall!" she had said, at least three times a day. "It's got every single kind of light there is! And I made popcorn chains." As a badge of honor, she held out her band-aided fingers where the needle had slipped through the popcorn. "...It's harder than it looks."

It was too early yet to go to Yuiko's, so Ritsuka walked down to the 24-hour convenience store to wait until a decent time of morning to visit. He sat down on the cold concrete bench outside, listening to the tinny Christmas pop on the speaker and staring at a blossoming hole in the toe of his right trainer. His cell phone was a heavy block under his sweatshirt, warm against his heartbeat, but he refused to open it up and call. Why should he? He had nothing to offer.

"Joyeux Noel, Ritsuka."

Ritsuka started violently, almost falling off the bench. For a wild moment he wondered if the bond between fighter unit and sacrifice was sensitive enough that it could pick up on vague longing rather than active mortal peril. "What are you doing here?" he blurted to Soubi, standing next to a red-bowed display of antifreeze with his coat open to the wind and a long white scarf like a pennant around his neck. "Are you sleeping outside of my house in the bushes now, or what?"

Soubi shrugged, holding out a bag emblazoned with the store's logo. "Kio demanded some Christmas cheer, so I bought some beer and onigiri. You're out early."

"Oh." Ritsuka looked away, unable to meet the disquieting fondness in Soubi's gaze. "Well, go away, anyway. I don't want to talk to you today."

Soubi paused, and then his retreating boots scraped on the sidewalk. Ritsuka stood up with an explosion of exasperated air.

"I didn't mean for you to leave, dummy!"

Soubi stopped and turned, his face serene and inscrutable behind his glasses. "Then why did you order me to?"

"I didn't order you, I just--" Ritsuka pulled his ears in frustration. "...I don't have a Christmas present for you yet. And if I see you you'll expect one and I don't have one so I can't give you one but if you don't see me then--"

"Ritsuka," Soubi broke in, gently untangling Ritsuka's hands from his hair, "I expect nothing from you."

"Well, I expect something from me," Ritsuka said. He wanted to pull his hand from Soubi's glove, but he had not noticed until that moment how cold he was, and that the white flakes blowing down from the sky were not wayward suds from the car wash. "You're--there's so much--I don't even--dammit." Ritsuka rubbed his face with the heel of his hand, embarrassed by the wetness caught in his lashes. "I haven't got anything to give you. I've been trying all month to think of something, but--"

"You've been thinking of me all month?" Soubi echoed, something like wonder in his voice.

"Of course I have!" Ritsuka fumed, trying to cross his arms and failing, with his hand still in Soubi's and the complications of the shopping bag. "You're really hard to shop for, you know?"

Soubi's mouth twitched. "So I've been told," he said, dryly. He rested his fingers in Ritsuka's hair, with one fleeting caress along one velvety, downturned little ear. "You give me a great deal, Ritsuka. More than I can say. I don't need trinkets--"

"Well, then ask for one!" Ritsuka demanded, veering away. Soubi's touch sent explosions of cobalt-colored butterflies shivering through his belly in an extremely distracting fashion. "Ask for a present I can give you, something you really want! That's an order!"

Soubi looked at him, and for a moment the wind tugged his scarf awry, revealing the ragged tips of carefully concealed scars on his throat. "...Spend the day with me," he said, at last.

Ritsuka frowned. "That's all?"

"That's all."

Ritsuka chewed on the request for a moment. "...Will you make sukiyaki?"

"Of course, if you like. We'll pick up some ingredients."

"Deal," Ritsuka said, heading down the sidewalk, Soubi falling wordlessly into step behind him. "But I still wish I could give you something you could keep."

"You do--"

"You know what I mean," Ritsuka grumbled, jamming his hands in his pockets to keep them out of Soubi's. He gave a chipping crack in the sidewalk a vicious kick. "Presents are murder when you're a kid."

"It gets easier, I promise."

"I wish it was easier now. I wish I had tons of money so I could get us--you--" Ritsuka bit his lip against the slip, the plural escaping unintended from his mouth.

"What would you get us?" Soubi asked, correcting it to me at Ritsuka's glare. "If you could. I don't need anything."

"I'd buy us a house," Ritsuka said, giving up on pretense, the longing enough to devour him. "Far away from... from everything. With a door we could lock and a yard and--and a Christmas tree and--" The words got tangled up in Ritsuka's throat. He couldn't say anything more, but Soubi's hand was somehow on his shoulder, catching Ritsuka up against the broad, protective strength of his fighter. Ritsuka's blurry eyes were on the sidewalk; he didn't notice where they were going until they wandered into a forest that had sprouted inexplicably beside the sidewalk, and the gummy, pungent scent of pine sap hit his lungs like an enthusiastic hug. They were in a small enclosure of Christmas trees, propped along the temporary partition for last-minute shoppers.

"Help me pick one," Soubi said, examining a silvery pine tree.

"These are real!" Ritsuka spluttered.

"Illusory ones would be hard to decorate."

"I mean they're real trees! They must cost a fortune--"

"Didn't I say presents were easier when you're older?" Soubi smiled down at him, benevolent as a Christmas angel. "Come on. I won't get one unless you approve of it."

Ritsuka scowled, pointing at random to the largest nearby tree. "That one," he said, challenge in his voice.

"Very well," Soubi said, unperturbed, and pulled out his wallet.

Ritsuka stood there, torn between frustration and delight, as Soubi paid for the tree and arranged for its delivery to his apartment.

"Why did you do that?" Ritsuka asked, when they were walking again.

"You didn't order me not to."

"I mean, you can't go blowing your money all the time because I didn't order you not to! You'll go broke."

Soubi shrugged, cupping his hands around a cigarette to light it. The snow was falling thicker now, covering up everything ugly around them, catching in his hair. "My paintings sell well, for student work. And I wanted to get you a present, too."

"But I didn't get you anything." Ritsuka wailed, in protest.

Soubi gave up on his cigarette, unable to light it. Instead he caught Ritsuka by the shoulders, turning him around. "Yes, you did," he said, "Just now."

"Spending the day with you? That's not a present--"

"You didn't just give me today." Soubi bent down and pressed his lips to the top of Ritsuka's head, one tiny hot snowflake in a whirl of colder ones. "...You gave me a dream of a future. And I cherish it. Thank you, Ritsuka."

A second later he was gone, continuing down the sidewalk as though nothing of import had been discussed. Ritsuka paused a moment before hurrying to catch up with him.

"I still say it would be easier to get you a tie or some aftershave or something."

"I wouldn't use them."

"Yeah, I know."

After a moment, Ritsuka reached out his hand and found Soubi's waiting for him, to tuck his smaller, colder one into the enfolding warmth of his pocket. The snow swirled down around them, veiling their footprints in the past and leaving only the faltering, hungry light of hope to light their way to the future.


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