The Secret Santa
SX submission for sgtpepper.
Shizune, Misha, and Hisao go Christmas shopping. Misha wants Hisao to help her find something for Shizune, Shizune wants Hisao to help her find something for Misha, and Hisao doesn't want either of them to know he's helping the other. Hilarity ensues.
I take one last longing look at my bed before I close and lock the door. Apparently, I’m not moving fast enough.
“Let’s go, Hicchan~!”
I worry for a second that Misha is going to wake Kenji, but decide Shizune’s knock probably already did that. Poor guy. I hope he wasn’t hoping to sleep in today, like me.
“I’m coming, sheesh. Besides, why are we in a hurry? It’s still really early.”
Misha laughs at that, but with Shizune, my protest falls on deaf ears, literally and figuratively. She starts signing, fast and furious, with Misha translating unnecessarily.
“Because we don’t want to miss out on all the good deals, of course! Because we don’t know how long it’ll take to get everything! And, most importantly, because you shouldn’t be sleeping your Sundays away! Aww, but Shicchan, I would have liked to sleep in too~”
[I know. That’s another reason we’re leaving so early.]
She pushes up the sleeve of her winter coat to check her watch. She frowned at it before chopping the air decisively.
[We need to go. The bus will be here soon.]
Shizune grabs my hand and practically drags me down the hall, she’s walking so quickly. Misha follows, snowpants rustling each step.
By the time we get outside, I’m feeling a little out of breath and when Shizune lets go of my hand to zip up her coat, it takes me a moment to realize she’s slipped a note into it.
She catches my eye, and zips up her coat with a smooth motion that ends with her finger pausing on her lips for a moment. She smiles conspiratorially and I nod to tell her I’ve received the message.
Shizune strikes up a conversation with Misha about something inane, which I recognize as my cue to unfold the note.
Can you help me pick out a present for Misha today? I won’t get much time to look for anything.
Briefly, I wonder how I’m supposed to do that and why she won’t have time to go looking herself. Still, knowing Shizune, she wouldn’t ask if she didn’t need the help and there’ll probably be opportunities throughout the day.
I get Shizune's attention and sign an affirmative as we get to the stop. She smiles back at me, then turns back to Misha, who doesn’t appear to have noticed.
[When is the bus coming, by the way?]
I sign when a break in their conversation comes up a minute later. Shizune glances at her watch, then slowly signs an answer.
“I don’t know~! You don’t know? Why don’t you know?”
Misha looks shocked as she translates both Shizune's response and signs her own question. I can only imagine how hard it must have been for me to follow what was being said when I first met these two.
Shizune fidgets adorably before answering.
[My watch may have stopped again.]
She admits, then regains some of her fire and goes on the attack.
[You two were slow! I’d budgeted extra time for you but apparently not enough!]
[How long do we have to wait here?]
Misha asks slowly, looking at her ungloved hands sadly.
Shizune again consults her watch before launching into an explanation. Apparently it stopped at around 9:40, when they first got to my room, and she didn’t know how long they spent waiting for me – a withering glance – but the buses came every thirty minutes on the 45s and 15s so it could be as long as…
“Thirty minu- thirty minutes?”
Misha looks positively crestfallen at the missed sleep.
[Or five minutes.]
Shizune tries to reassure her friend but Misha takes no notice.
[At least we’ll have lots of time to get our shopping done!]
I laugh at my own joke, then we settle in to wait.
We must have missed the 9:45 bus because it takes a long time for this one to arrive. In the end, it does and we pile on, kicking dirty snow from our boots. The bus is completely empty and we move to the back, making ourselves comfortable on what will be a long ride.
Misha plops herself down, unzips her coat, and then tucks her hands into her armpits.
“Aaaaah! I wish I hadn’t lost my gloves~!”
I translate for Shizune, whose face registers no sympathy for her friend
[I told you to put them in your pocket! You’ll have to buy yourself a pair today! And you don’t need to translate what Misha's saying, Hisao. I can read her lips.]
“I know, Shicchan~! I will, but my fingers feel like popsicles!”
To emphasise her point, she pulls her hands out and waves them at Shizune too fast for her to see anything. When Shizune starts to look annoyed, Misha stops and cups her hands in front of her mouth, ostensibly to warm them.
“Sign ‘how are your extra studies going?’ but don’t translate anything else, ok?”
Misha's eyes, peeking out from behind the obscuring shield of her hands, look serious. I do as she says, feeling more than a little guilty. Selective translation feels wrong, like I’m leaving Shizune out. I guess that’s the idea though, and I’m more than a little curious about what Misha wants from me. I’m also worried about how I’m going to hide my lips from Shizune. Misha seems to sense my hesitation, however.
“Don’t worry, Hicchan~! She can’t read your lips as well as she can read mine~ She and I practice sometimes~~ Just turn a bit away from Shicchan and sign ‘Mutou-san says I’m doing much better but they’re soooo tiring~!’”
I translate Misha’s message, then add one of my own offering to help her too. I hope Shizune doesn’t notice how slow I am as I try to keep what my hands are saying separate from my question for Misha.
“What’s with all this cloak and dagger stuff?”
“Wahaha~! I like that, Hicchan! Cloak and dagger! I just wanted to know if you’d help me pick a gift for Shicchan~ I don’t want her to know I need help but I’ve been soooo busy with school.”
I can’t see her mouth but I can tell she’s frowning from her eyes and without thinking, I nod. Misha’s eyes light up with relief, and I feel good about my decision until there’s a loud snap that makes us both jump.
We turn to face Shizune, who’s glaring at me with her arms crossed. It takes me a moment to realize why, then I start signing frantically.
[You didn’t miss anything. Misha just asked if I meant it and I said of course, we’re student council members.]
Shizune is still staring at me and I think I can see suspicion in her eyes but then she smiles.
[That’s right! We’re a team and we need to look out for each other!]
She signs grandly, beaming at Misha and I. If only she knew just how I was looking out for the two of them…
Misha's picked up the conversation which allows me to check out mentally as it starts to dawn on me just what I’ve gotten myself into.
I can’t imagine I’ll get much time alone with either Shizune or Misha today. That means I’ll have to take advantage of Shizune’s deafness while also sneaking notes to her behind Misha’s back if I want to help them out. Hopefully the ends will justify the means because I’m already uneasy about the questionable ethics. I also have my own shopping to do for Misha and Shizune, so this looks like it’ll be a fun day.
By the time we get to the city, the bus is starting to get full so it’s a relief when it finally pulls up to the mall. The feeling is short-lived because everyone disembarks and files into the mall, which is just as packed as the bus was.
“Wahaha! I guess everyone else had the same idea~!”
Misha tries to laugh but it dies in her throat as she looks with wide eyes at the crowds. She raises and lowers her hands a few times, each time signing a few words like she’s trying to translate everything that’s happening around us.
Before I can ask if she’s ok, Shizune starts pushing her way through the teeming mass of people, forcing Misha and I to follow.
She leads us to a map of the mall not far from where we came in and whirls around. My impression of Shizune, the commanding officer about to address her troops, is strengthened when she starts to sign.
[If we get separated, we’ll meet here. We should catch the 5:45 bus back to Yamaku so we’re back in time for dinner, though the buses run until 11:15 tonight.]
“Shicchan, you don’t think it’ll take us that long to do our Christmas shopping, do you? You know crowds tire me out!”
Misha interrupts, looking slightly panicked at the prospect of being here that long. While Shizune fixes her with a dangerous stare, I wonder if this isn’t why Shizune won’t get a chance to go off on her own.
[Of course I know! I’m just trying to tell you that we have lots of time if we need it!]
[Where do we want to go first?]
I jump in quickly, hoping to head off any further argument. The girls look at each other, then we all hunch over the map.
I see a few places that might have what I want to get for Shizune and Misha but I don’t get a chance to suggest them.
The girls exchange a quick burst of sign, too quick for me to follow, and Misha turns to me, chest puffed up with pride.
Misha is still looking proud, and it takes her a moment to realize Shizune is signing an explanation.
“It's ~the hottest new clothing store! It has all kinds of awesome stuff! Have you seen their MujiYawa yet~?”
I’m about to answer when I realize Misha is asking Shizune, not me. They start talking about MujiYawa - which I think are stuffed animals - as they set off towards the store. The decision, it seems, has already been made.
MujiQlo is as packed as the rest of the mall but Misha doesn’t seem to mind as she and Shizune explore aisles of brightly coloured clothes, toys, and small household appliances.
I trail behind them at a distance, feeling distinctly out of place in a store clearly meant for a different demographic. Even the watches are colourful and girly. Still, there’s plenty here that might make good gifts for me to give.
In one display, there’s a bunch of plush… things. It looks like someone hybridized two different animals to form a single stuffed toy. When I check the tag, these turn out to be the MujiYawa Misha was talking about.
With one eye on the girls, I carefully dig through the display, tossing aside soft dog-rats, monkey-dragons, and a cat-snake before I find one I like.
It’s pink and purple, with the woolen body of a sheep and the head of a lion. Loud, yet soft, just like Misha. Perfect. I pull the MujiYawa from the pile and stuff it into a plain brown plastic bag I’d brought for just this purpose.
Misha's voice makes me jump and I head over to where she and Shizune are waiting in line for the fitting rooms. Shizune passes some of her stuff off to Misha to free up her hands.
[We thought we’d lost you already.]
I shake my head and answer that I was just looking at some stuff. Shizune nods, then changes the subject.
[What's in the bag?]
I can see Misha eyeing it curiously too. I probably should have seen this coming…
With both Shizune and Misha staring at him and the bag, I have to think quickly. I strike a pose, the effect slightly ruined when I have to sign my message.
[I could tell you but then I’d have to kill you.]
I make the gestures big and bold, drawing a laugh from the girls. I mutter a silent thanks to Kenji, who’d told me just the same thing yesterday when I caught him sneaking around. Thankfully, both seem to forget about the bag, though I get the feeling Shizune isn’t done trying.
In the meantime, she takes her stuff back then sidles up to me, grabbing for my hand. I feel the scratch of paper against my palm, then Misha demands my attention.
She holds up a sweater like she wants me to look at it, but it’s much too small for her and she’s covering her mouth with it. I already know the answer to what she’s about to ask.
“Do you think Shicchan will like it?”
I slide the note into my pocket and slide my bag up my wrist so I can translate her question as “what do you think?” Shizune puts some of her own clothes down too.
[I think you’d feel more comfortable in a larger size.]
She’s unwilling to meet Misha's eye but Misha, for her part, doesn’t look offended.
“Tell Shicchan it was the only one like it left on the rack, and you still haven’t told me what you think~!”
I use the time I need to “translate” for Shizune to work out how I want to tell Misha the truth because the sweater is truly ugly.
It’s almost blinding, with a pattern that hurts the eyes to look at for too long. Shizune would not like it, and nor would anyone else. Leaving out that last part, I tell Misha as much, then sign an agreement with Shizune’s assessment of its size.
“Thanks, Hicchan! I appreciate your honesty~”
She lowers the sweater and I breathe a sigh of relief. Shizune might have accused me of not caring about her if I’d let Misha get it for her. Misha probably could have sued me for neglecting my duty to help her pick a good gift. That was almost ugly, like the sweater.
As we get closer to the front of the line, I shift Shizune’s note to my other hand, the one out of Misha’s line of sight, and unfold it.
Did you see anything I could get Misha? I’m going to hang around here for her in case she’s done quickly.
I nudge Shizune and give her a nod, hiding my own doubts.
There were plenty of nice clothes, but judging from the pile of stuff Misha is carrying into the changing room, she won’t need anything else for a while. I also don’t want to suggest a MujiYawa like I’ve picked for her. This could be tough, but walking in, I’d seen some little plastic cutesy baubles. I wonder…
[I’ll be right back. I’m going to go buy this now so you two don’t peek later.]
“Aww, I wouldn’t do that, Hicchan~”
[You wouldn’t peek, but Shizune might.]
With that quip, I give Shizune’s hand a squeeze, pressing the note back into it before I turn and leave. Hopefully she’ll understand.
I make my way to the front of the store and join another long line. It snakes through several baskets full of the sorts of trinkets I can imagine Misha enjoying.
There are little pens with ducks on the end, cute erasers shaped like airplanes, stickers with cartoon-ish versions of the planets, headphones with designs on them, and rainbow-coloured gloves but there’s nothing big enough to count as a gift by itself.
Still, I jot a few things down on a piece of paper Shizune clearly tore from one of her school notebooks. By the time I get to the front, I’ve got a decent list. Hopefully she’ll like something from it.
By the time I get back to the girls, Misha’s in the change room. Shizune is hanging around outside, and she sets her bundle of clothes down on a nearby bench.
[Did you find anything good?]
[It’s all up by the registers, so I’m not sure how you’d buy any of it without Misha noticing.]
I tell her as she reads the list. Shizune shoots me a look, as though to say she’d make it happen if she wanted to. Which, apparently, she doesn’t want to.
[I don't know if I will. I was hoping to get her a single, nice gift.]
I resist the urge to roll my eyes as she hands the list back to me.
[When were you going to tell me that?]
[You never asked and I just did.]
I shake my head and smile.
[You’re too much sometimes.]
Shizune has plenty she wants to say but I just pull her into a hug before she can sign anything else. She doesn’t resist at all and I hold her tight for a moment before releasing her, though I don’t take my hands off her waist.
The warmth of her soft body matches the warmth in her eyes. Times like these are the only ones I wish she weren’t deaf because I can’t say anything to her without letting go and I don’t want to.
“I love you, Shizune.”
If she doesn’t know what I’ve said from the careful, slow movements of my lips, I’m sure she’ll be able to read it on my face. All I can feel for her right now is affection and that must show; I know it does for her.
The moment stretches out for several seconds, then I can see a store worker hovering nervously nearby. Shizune must have noticed the flicker of my eyes because she pulls away. I move to translate but she disdains me, instead pulling another scrap of paper from her pocket.
There’s a brief exchange of notes, then Shizune disappears into a changeroom. Moments later, Misha emerges. She looks around nervously, then spots me. She rushes over, talking even before she arrives.
“I’ve been thinking, Hicchan~ I don’t know if I want to get her clothes, after all.”
“That’s probably a good idea. She has a lot of stuff in her closet she never touches.”
“Wahaha~ And here she is, buying more~!”
“What do you want to get her?”
I’ve learned from my experience with Shizune. Misha laughs nervously though, which doesn’t fill me with confidence.
“Haha~ I’m not sure, Hicchan~ I think I’ll know it when I see it!”
“How about you? Do you need help picking stuff~?”
“I think I’ll manage, thanks.”
After her sweater choice for Shizune, I’m not sure if I’d trust Misha to help. Besides, I can’t say I’ve got a better idea of what to get her than Misha does. This is the first time I’ve bought a girlfriend a present and it’s a little intimidating.
I get Misha talking again, hoping she’ll settle on something. I’m also hoping she’ll give me inspiration for my own gift for Shizune but I come up blank on both fronts, though I do give her the list I’d made for Shizune.
“Thanks, Hicchan~ There’s some stuff here she’d really~ like!”
I think about telling her to go get some of it, but Misha wouldn’t like the crowd and so we keep waiting for Shizune.
Twice, she comes out to ask our opinion on something. Both times, Misha tells her she looks great. Only one of those times is she right to say so.
Finally, as the line behind us is starting to get intimidatingly long, Shizune wraps up. She’s got an armload of clothes which she hands to the fitting room attendant. Misha's already given hers to the woman so we leave for the cash registers
Despite her proclamation at the fitting room, Misha doesn't get anything from the bins full of baubles while we're waiting in line. She doesn't ask me either, so I can only assume that she's changed her mind. Whatever.
After the girls have paid, the kid at the cash looks at me expectantly.
“Are you buying that?”
“I’ve already paid for it. I’ve got the receipt here.”
I pull it free and he takes a look at it, then licks his lips nervously.
“I’m uh, sorry sir. I’m going to have to check in your bag.”
Shizune and Misha are both watching me with undisguised glee. Shizune pushes up her glasses, adjusts her bags, then starts to sign very primly.
[If it’s not for either one of us, what’s the problem with showing the cashier while we’re here?]
I can see a way out of this situation, but I’m not happy about it. Shizune has seen it too, which is no doubt why she looks so smug.
[Why don’t you two go ahead? I can catch up when I’m done.]
I tell Shizune, whose smile only widens. I feel like I’m playing the final moves of a chess game when I know mate is coming.
[I think Misha and I will want something from you if you’re going to deny us our curiosity.]
[That’s only fair. What if I carry your heaviest bags until lunch?]
Shizune’s response is instant, and the cashier, who’s been following the action like a fan at a tennis game, gasps even though he can’t understand what’s being said.
[All of them. For the rest of the day.]
I had known she’d ask for that, but maybe checkmate isn’t inevitable…
I turn away from Shizune, “coughing”.
“Misha, I won’t be able to help you if I’m carrying all of your bags.”
Her eyes widen and, just as I’d hoped, she turns to Shizune and joins the conversation, pleading with her to recant. It’s my turn to smile now. Sometimes, the pieces move unexpectedly.
I let Shizune struggle with Misha for a few seconds, then step get their attention.
[I’ll carry your heaviest bags until lunch. Final offer.]
Reluctantly, like a woman whose victory has been snatched from her, Shizune nods. Per the agreement, the girls leave me their bags and leave.
“What just happened?”
The cashier, who I’d almost forgotten about, seems stunned. I laugh and swing my bag up onto the counter.
“Just your average day.”
By the time lunchtime rolls around, I still haven’t bought anything for Shizune. I wasn’t sure I wanted to, either. She must have felt cheated because she insisted that we go to a bookstore next, where she loaded up on heavy things for me to carry.
My appeals to logic had proven useless - she hadn’t cared that she’d have to carry the books later, after lunch, nor was she receptive to going shortly before we leave the mall later.
[Isn’t the Nurse always telling you to get more exercise?]
[I don’t think this is quite what he meant.]
Shizune had just smiled, then she’d turned to breeze into the bookstore, almost knocking over a display of portable whiteboards on her way.
We’d made one more stop -a shoe store - before coming to the food court. The girls have gone to get food while I guard our table and even as I’m massaging my aching arms, I have to admit that the morning was productive.
Before leaving MujiQlo, I’d grabbed some more little trinkety stuff for Misha’s gift, which I feel is ready. I’d also noticed that Shizune was staring at a pair of earrings on display in a little jewelry kiosk we’d passed on the way to the food court. All I have to do is get away from the girls long enough to buy it for her...
Despite my own success, I hadn’t found anything for Shizune or Misha to get each other - or at least anything they wanted to get each other. It wasn’t for lack of trying, however, and we still have lots of time.
When Misha and Shizune arrive with lunch, I do my best to get them talking. At first it's like trying to start a fire with wet kindling but eventually, I get a conversation to catch.
While the girls chat, I wolf down my own lunch, then excuse myself to go to the bathroom, making a point of bringing my brown bag with me.
I walk calmly till I'm out of sight, then I start to hurry. I figure I've got about five minutes before they start to get suspicious.
When I get closer to the kiosk, I'm surprised to see the crowd's subsided. Maybe everyone's gone to get lunch? Then, I see a lone figure browsing and think maybe I know the real reason it's deserted.
I contemplate turning back for a moment, but I can't; I need to get Shizune a gift. Besides, as soon as the thought crosses my mind, the person at the kiosk turns and somehow picks me out of the crowd, raising a hand in greeting.
Kenji, who shouldn't be able to see a thing from this distance and yet here he is, defying his limitations in the most ridiculous way.
"Hey, Kenji. What are you doing here?"
I’m half-dreading the answer, but burning curiosity compels me to ask and Kenji looks… surprisingly sane today. Maybe it's because he's ditched the scarf...
"I'm practicing my stealth techniques, of course. Oh, and I'm getting a gift for my sister too."
Trust Kenji to have a weird answer - wait, sister?
"I didn't know you had a sister."
"I thought I'd told you about her! She's really cool, man. You'd like her.”
I want to ask him more questions but the image of Shizune and Misha, waiting at the table, pops into my mind.
“You’ll have to introduce me to her someday then, Kenji. Anyways, I’m actually here to pick up a gift too and I’m in a hurry so I’ll have to talk to you later.”
“Yeah, I’ll catch you later!”
I peel away from Kenji, leaving him to press his nose to the display cases. I go around the kiosk to where I’d seen Shizune’s earrings but where I get there, the case is empty and attendant is wrapping something.
“Excuse me, uh, Eiko? What happened to the earrings that were here?"
"Oh, the butterflies? The gentleman over there just bought them."
She's pointing at Kenji. Shit.
“Do you have any more?”
“No, I’m sorry. That was the last pair.”
Shit again. I guess I’ll have to get them from Kenji somehow.
I walk back to where my hallmate is standing, trying to come up with a way to broach the topic.
“Hey, uh, Kenji…”
He turns to me, concern written across his face.
"You ok, man? What did that feminist agent say to you? If they've got your parents, we'll get them back, I promise!"
I wave a hand to dispel the crazy.
"No, nothing like that. She was just-"
Kenji leans in close and lowers his voice conspiratorially.
"You can tell me the truth. I thought Eiko was trying to lead me on earlier and I guess I was right: she is a feminist agent. Don’t worry, Hisao, her threats will be nothing but empty air by the time we're through!"
His noise is attracting curious - and concerned - looks from passers-by. I hush him, then an idea comes to mind.
"Kenji, it's nothing like that. She's on our side."
Kenji's fixed me with eager eyes and I nod, confirming whatever he's thinking. Hopefully it's not too crazy.
"Yeah. She's one of my agents."
"Why didn't she give me the employee's disco- oh! She didn't want to give herself away! You're a smart guy, Hisao. I'm glad I took you under my wing."
Under his…? Whatever.
"So am I. Now, here's the thing: you know those earrings you bought? I need them f-"
Kenji interrupts, instantly suspicious. I guess his delusions don't extend to his wallet. Still, I’m committed now.
“I need them for an op. Eiko shouldn’t have sold them to just anyone, so now I’m worried that she’s been turned somehow or that you’ve been blown. What did you say to her?”
My own fake concern is mirrored on Kenji’s face and he stammers out an explanation.
“W-we talked about a whole bunch of stuff. I was here for a while. E-eiko’s really nice-”
I cut him off before Kenji launches into a full summary of his conversation.
“Did you say anything about the weather?”
“Yeah, it’s part of my stealth protocol, winter weather-”
“What exactly did you say?”
“I’m getting there, man! My memory is almost picture-perfect! I said that it’s a little more chilly than normal, and she said she’d hoped I’d bundled up, and I said that I had.”
I pretend to breathe a sigh of relief even as I’m counting off the minutes since I left the girls.
“That explains it. That was the pass-phrase. She must have thought you were here to make the pick-up for me.”
“Excuse me? Kenji?”
It’s the kiosk attendant, Eiko. How long was he here that she knows his name?
“Here are the earrings. I hope your sister likes them.”
She smiles at him warmly and her hand seems to linger on the gift longer than it needs to when she gives it to Kenji. What did he say to her before I got here?
“It looks great, thanks. Keep up the good work.”
Kenji snaps off a salute and Eiko blushes a little.
"Have a nice day!"
"You too, Eiko!"
Kenji and I walk away from the kiosk, making our way slowly to the cafeteria. I want to ask him about Eiko but Kenji has something else on his mind.
“What do you need the earrings for?”
"I ordered them custom-made for the deep-cover op I've been running on the Student Council President, Hakamichi."
He nods seriously.
"You're a brave man, you know that, Hisao? I don’t think I tell you that often enough. Here. I think you'll need these more than me."
Kenji hands me the bag, much to my surprise. I hadn't expected it to be this easy. Maybe I'm too used to Shizune but I have to ask...
"Are you sure?"
"Yeah, brother. We men have got to stick together and besides, I still owe you money for stuff."
I’m surprised he still remembers.
"Thanks, Kenji. You just saved my life."
He claps me on the back.
"Not for the first time and not for the last."
I'm about to walk away when I think of something else.
"What about your sister? What will you get her?"
"Now that I know she's on our side, might go see if Eiko has any suggestions…"
Kenji is shy and nervous about it, and I realize he's seeking my approval. A vision of him, talking to Elko about something she knows nothing about, comes to mind.
"If you do, don't mention me, ok? I wouldn't bring up the war against feminism, either."
"She knows better than to admit to being on our side to a complete stranger."
"But I knew the pass-phrase!"
"That's not good enough and you know it."
Kenji looks forlorn for a moment, then brightens up.
"You could introduce me! You're her handler, so she'll know she can trust me!"
"No dice. I have to maintain operational security."
"What else will I talk to her about?"
Kenji looks aghast. Another flash of inspiration comes to mind.
"Why don't you practice your stealth protocol some more? Both you and she could benefit from it and besides, it was going well for you before you knew she was one of us."
"You think so?"
"I know so. Now, get over there and remember, don't mention me, or feminism."
"No problem, Kenji."
With that, I send him on his way, not bothering to tell him about the pamphlet for a feminist rally I’d seen behind the counter. I wish I could stay and watch the fireworks, but I see a flash of pink in the crowd. Misha.
I quickly take the earrings out of their bulky paper bag, which I stuff into a nearby garbage can. The earring box vanishes into the bottom of my bag, then I wave to the girls.
The next few hours go by in a flash. We stop in at shoe stores, clothing stores, appliance stores, stationary stores, toy stores, and more, but nothing appeals to the Shizune or Misha, who grow increasingly frantic with each visit. We're whipping in and out of stores, with Shizune passing barely-hidden notes to me while Misha talks to me in plain sight, sometimes all at once.
Part of the way through the day, Shizune must have run out of note-paper because she starts using the backs of her receipts before giving up and switching to sign.
If I’d known how much of a hassle this would turn out to be, I would have said no. Shizune wants me to go scout out good stuff for Misha so she can get it for her. The only problem with Shizune's plan is Misha, who constantly wants my feedback and so tails me everywhere. I can’t even spend a moment with Shizune, can barely hold her hand.
"Hicchan, what do you think of this~?"
Is there anything Misha would like here?
“I found this~ but I don’t know what Shicchan would think of it.”
[I wanted to get her something nicer than that.]
Finally, as we’re coming out of yet another store with the girls hanging off of me and without any presents, I snap.
[Both of you go back to the food court. I’ll meet you there.]
“But why, Hicchan?”
Shizune and Misha look both confused and puzzled but I don’t answer the questions they're really asking. Not directly, at least.
[I've got some stuff to pick up for you.]
Realization dawns on two faces, one after the other, and they nod surreptitiously. I want to laugh because they're both so focused on being sneaky they don't notice what the other is doing.
[I’ll meet you at the map-board at 5:30. If I’m not back before it’s time to go, leave without me.]
With that, I turn and leave. Taking a glance at a TV in a storefront window, I notice that it’s well past four. That gives me about an hour or so to come up with something to buy for them.
It occurs to me briefly that if Shizune and Misha failed to find a good present for their best friend, I would too but I push the thought aside. Maybe I’ve spent too much time around Shizune, but I’m not going to fail.
I find a bench - out of sight from the food court, of course - and take a seat to think about it and to rest my tired arms and legs. If the girls couldn’t find anything they thought the other would like, maybe it’s time to start thinking about what they need.
As soon as I have that epiphany, I leap to my feet and race back to MujiQlo. If anything, it’s more packed now that it’s late in the day but I still manage to grab everything I want: headphones, gloves, and a watch.
“Can I get a separate bill for the watch, please, and can I get separate bags too?”
I shove everything into my brown bag, then get moving again. I have another stop to make, this one at the bookstore, where I pick up a mini-whiteboard and a pack of markers to go with it.
"No bag, thanks."
Once I'm out, I take a minute to organize everything. The watch, markers, and whiteboard go into one MujiQlo bag for Misha's gift for Shizune. The gloves and headphones stay in their bag - Shizune's gift for Misha - and I consolidate the MujiYawa with the pens and erasers I'd bought into single bag.
I’ll have to think of a way to transfer things to the girls later but for now, I have to get to the bus-stop; I’ve already missed the 5:30 rendezvous.
By the time I arrive, the bus is already loading, but I still manage to catch up to Shizune and Misha. The pink-haired girl notices me first.
“Hicchan~! You made it~ Woah! Are you ok?”
I nod, then take a few seconds to catch my breath and to steady my heart. Too much running… When I recover, Shizune is looking at me fiercely, though I can see concern mingled in there too.
[You shouldn’t be running in your condition. You could injure yourself.]
[I made it, didn’t I?]
I answer with shaking hands.
[Anyways, it’s time to hop on.]
It’s crowded on the bus and Shizune looks like she’s about to demand someone give up their seat for me. I manage to talk her out of it, grateful that I don’t have to explain to a complete stranger why I, a healthy-looking young man, need to sit.
We wind up standing near the middle of the bus, holding onto the straps on the ceiling with our bags at our feet. It effectively makes sign-language conversation impossible, but I can still talk to Misha as long as I’m careful to look away from Shizune so she doesn’t know I’m saying anything.
“I picked you up something for Shizune, Misha. Make sure Shizune can’t see you talking.”
She obeys, turning her head uncomfortably to look out the window at the grey buildings outside.
“Thank you, thank you, Hicchan~ What did you get~?”
“Just some things I thought she could use. They’re in the first MujiQlo bag in the bag at my feet. I’ll push it over to you so you can grab it while I distract Shizune. Just don’t look in the others, ok?”
“Don’t worry~ I won’t~”
Shizune is staring out the window of the bus too, though she turns quickly what I tap her on the shoulder. She looks tired, but visibly brightens when we make eye contact. Adjusting her hold on the straps, she starts finger-spelling.
[ARE YOU SURE YOURE OK?]
It takes me a moment to remember how to finger-spell, but I sign an answer to Shizune, who immediately starts giggling.
[YOU JUST TOLD ME YOU ARE FIVE.]
I shrug and smile at her, then reach out to touch her smiling face. Dimly, I’m aware that Misha’s pushing the bag back over to me, but that awareness seems less and less important with every second I stare at Shizune. We didn’t get much time together today or, for that matter, the past few days.
She must feel the same way because Shizune wraps an arm around me, then lays her head on my chest. The contact is nice, but the bus hits a bump and the bag at my feet shifts slightly. I tap Shizune’s back, then gently pull away from her.
I check to see what Misha is up to and find that she’s turned away from Shizune and I, presumably to give us as much privacy as we can have on a packed bus. Perfect.
[I PICKED SOME STUFF UP FOR YOU TO GIVE TO MISHA.]
I jerk my head downwards and Shizune’s eyes follow the motion. She frowns.
Suddenly, I can’t remember what I did with the earring box. Did I put it into my bag loose, where Shizune might find it, or did I put it into the first MujiQlo bag, the one with Misha’s gift?
I shake my head emphatically. I can’t risk it now that there’s space in my bag.
[ILL GIVE IT TO YOU LATER.]
[DOES THAT MEAN YOU’RE COMING WITH ME TO MY ROOM? IVE MISSED YOU.]
She looks me straight in the eye as she makes that confession and I nod. I’ve missed her touch as much as she’s missed mine, I realize. Exams seasons aren’t good for relationships.
“Whaaaa~ How can the elevators be out in a school like this?”
Neither Misha nor I have the hands to translate - they’re full of bags - but it’s pretty obvious what she’s saying. Shizune, for her part, doesn’t seem fazed at all by the handwritten sign that’s been taped to the elevator door.
I can’t say I’m too thrilled that the elevator is broken, but I’m not surprised at this point. The day had been long and tiring and I’ve resigned myself to whatever else comes my way so when Shizune points to the stairs, I follow dumbly.
She wants to make a race of it but Misha and I watch her disappear up the stairs, then start climbing at a slower pace. Even at that pace, I’m out of breath by the time we get to the second story.
“Have I ever told you..., Hicchan, that I hate... stairs?”
I nod in mute agreement; right now, I’m hating them too. My heart feels like it’s going to hammer its way out of my chest and I place a hand on it, thumping myself in the stomach with bags I’d forgotten I was holding. My heart lurches and the world seems to twist a bit.
“Did you say something... Hicchan, are you ok?”
I thought I'd kept that thought to myself but Misha again answers, this time with startling austerity.
"No, you're not. Sit down, Hisao."
I obey, setting my bags down on the landing as I try to calm my heart. Did I take my meds this morning? Probably not, which explains this little episode. God, how scary is it that a missed dose can do this?
I put on a brave face for Misha, who’s dropped her tough-girl act and is now looking at me like she’s scared I’m going to die.
“I’m feeling a bit better now, M-misha. I guess today’s taken more out of me then I thought it had.”
Misha grins at me.
“Wahaha~ It was a busy day for you, Hicchan~ but you helped me out big-time and I really appreciate it.”
“It’s like Shizune said, right? We’ve got to look out for each other.”
“You’ve got that right~!”
After amother minute or two, I get to my feet and start gathering bags.
“Let’s get going before Shizune starts to worry.”
We wind up beating Shizune to Misha's room, somehow, and it isn't until we've unloaded Misha's bags that Shizune turns up, looking irritated.
She's got less bags than before, which leaves her hands free to sign at us with swift, cutting motions.
[Where did you two go? I just got back from my room because I thought you'd gone there first.]
Misha and I both start signing, though she stops and lets me explain.
[I had an episode coming up the stairs. Misha waited with me until I was better.]
Shizune's face goes from angry to guilty and concerned, then back to angry.
[You shouldn't have been rushing around so much earlier.]
If looks could kill, Shizune would be a bigger threat to my health than my heart ever was.
[You're right, but I had stuff to take care of. If we take the next flight more slowly, I should be fine.]
I'm right about that and we get up to Shizune's room without any further issues. We drop everything off, then Misha sighs.
"Aaaaaah~ I'm so tired~ Will I see you two later, for dinner?"
[Yes. We’ll see you at eight in the cafeteria?]
Misha nods and Shizune waves at her friend who sets off towards the stairs. Once Misha is gone, Shizune turns to me. There’s a look in her eye that immediately gets my attention.
[I’ve been waiting all day to get you to myself.]
She grabs my hand, pulling me gently back towards her door, but I resist.
Shizune frowns at me, lets my hand go.
[What is it?]
[I forgot to take my medication this morning.]
I admit hesitantly. Shizune’s frown deepens.
[Is that why you had your episode on the stairs?]
[You should be more vigilant about taking care of yourself.]
I laugh at Shizune’s earnestness.
[I normally do, but someone was rushing me this morning.]
She puffs up indignantly, hands dropping to her hips before returning to slice the air with renewed vigor.
[You can’t blame this on-]
Shizune doesn’t get to finish what she’s saying because I hug her, pinning her arms to her sides.
She resists slightly, then relaxes in my grip. After a few seconds, Shizune twists free.
[You interrupted me.]
I wave dismissively.
[I don’t blame you. I was kidding. Now, let’s go get my medication so I can relax for this first time today.]
Hand-in-hand, we make our way back down the stairs before heading into the boys dorm. The coast is clear, so we duck into my room where I make Shizune wait outside while I down my piles and hide the bag of presents, minus the one she’s supposed to give to Misha.
I bring it with me to the door to show Shizune, but when I let her in, she isn’t interested.
[Show me later. I want to be close to you.]
With a shrug, I set the present down on the desk. I’m ok with this.
By the time I turn around, Shizune’s already ditched her coat, which she’s tossed unceremoniously on the floor. She’s about to take off her pants when she pauses.
[Can you grab me some pajamas?]
I pull a pair from my closet and toss them to her. Shizune changes quickly, then makes herself a nest out of my pillows and blankets while I watch, smiling.
[What are you smiling about?]
She asks. When I don’t answer, Shizune looks like she wants to press the point but doesn’t. I wait until she’s made herself comfortable, then tell her what I was smiling about.
I’m rewarded with a blush that she tries to hide with a brazen attitude.
[I know. Are you going to join me?]
[Yes, but are you still going to want to meet Misha for dinner later? You look pretty comfortable.]
[I am comfortable, and I’d be more comfortable if you joined me. I’ve been waiting for this all day.]
She holds her arms out to me and I grab my other pair of pajamas. When my parents sent me with two sets, they probably didn’t expect the Student Council President would be wearing one of them.
Would they be proud of me, I think as I pull on my shirt. Probably. I can see my mom and Shizune getting along, once they get past the language ba-
Bang, bang, bang!
I jump, fumbling the buttons I was trying to do up. Quickly, I finish buttoning my shirt, then I catch Shizune’s signed interrogative as I’m about to answer the door.
[Who is it?]
Shizune looks surprised and annoyed.
[I don't know; I wasn't expecting anyone.]
[Go answer it.]
Whoever’s there knocks again, more insistently this time, but I can’t resist.
[I was going to, but you wanted to know what was happening.]
She scowls, then signs again for me to go answer the door.
I position myself to block Shizune from view, then crack open the door.
It’s Kenji, bouncing on his heels impatiently. His face looks flushed and his jacket is dusted with snow - he must have come straight here after getting back from the mall. Before I can ask him what’s up, Kenji starts talking in a voice that’s fast and tight.
“I need to talk to you. Can I come in? It’s about Eiko.”
No, you can’t come in but who’s Eiko? The girl from the jewelry kiosk?
“What about her?”
Instead of letting him in, I slip out into the hall, closing the door behind me. Kenji is so excited he doesn’t notice. For a moment, I think he’s too excited to speak, but then he blurts out his news.
“She and I are going on a date!”
I stare at him for longer than is polite before I remember that Kenji is waiting for an answer. Even when I do, I’m so surprised, all I can do is repeat the only words I understood.
“Yeah, man! Next week, Wednesday. We’re going to get dinner and see a movie or something like that.”
For the second time today, I get the feeling he’s seeking my approval so I give it, wholeheartedly.
“Congratulations, Kenji! You really must have made a good impression!”
“Of course I did! My stealth protocols are masterfully crafted. I just wanted to say thanks for you advice.”
What advice was that? Those moments by the jeweler’s kiosk seems like days ago now.
“I didn’t believe you at first but I guess you knew that part of her cover was as a feminist activist. She would have to turn me down if I’d brought up my own position!”
Right, I told him not to mention the war on feminism. I guess that turned out better than anyone could have expected.
Adding to my surprise, Kenji sticks out his hand and I shake it after a moment’s hesitation.
“We’ll name our first-born after you.”
Kenji declares without a hint of irony, then starts walking away. I want to call after him, but I decide to let him go. I’ve already done more than enough so I duck back into my room.
[Who was that?]
Shizune has pulled the blankets up to her chin so all I can see is her face. Normally, I’d be thinking about how cute she looks but all I can think about is what Kenji just told me.
[Just my hall-mate.]
She wrinkles her nose and I stop thinking about how dating Eiko will change Kenji. I know she’s had run-ins with him in the past as part of her duties as the President of the Student Council.
[Yes. He just came by to tell me something.]
A moment after I finish signing, I realize I shouldn’t have told Shizune anything: curiosity is flaring in her eyes.
Before she can ask me about the conversation, I bend to her and kiss her. I feel a twinge of guilt that I’m distracting her like but it doesn’t last long; I was going to kiss Shizune whether Kenji came by or not.
When Shizune pushes me away, she seems to have forgotten about Kenji’s visit. She lifts the blankets up to let me under and I press myself against her body, soft and warm and inviting. Quietly, I curse Mutou, all the other teachers, and the entire education system in Japan for using exams as a wedge to keep me from Shizune.
Tap, tap, tap.
I sigh, then poke Shizune’s shoulder. The look on my face must have given it away because annoyance flashes across hers as she frees her hands.
[Again? If it’s Setou again, I’m going to give him a piece of my mind.]
[No you won’t, because that would be hard to explain. Stay there.]
Once more, I position myself to keep Shizune out of sight, then open the door. There’s nobody there, so I stick my head out into the hall.
At its end is Misha’s pink hair, bobbing away from me and I shout to get her attention, then step out of my room.
“Oh, there you are, Hicchan~ I’m sorry I interrupted your nap!”
She rushes back and in her hand is a MujiQlo bag. Misha gets close enough for me to smell her shampoo and whispers, even though we’re alone in the hall.
“I think I got the wrong present."
Misha opens the bag and she’s right: she’s got the headphones and the gloves.
I can't tell her they're Shizune's gift for her for obvious reasons so I'll have to lie…
"Oh, that's awkward. Those are my presents for you."
Misha's mouth forms a perfect 'o' for a moment, then she gushes an apology.
“I’m sorry, Hicchan! I didn’t realize-”
I cut her off.
“It’s ok, Misha. Just act surprised on Christmas.”
“Wahaha~ I’ll try. I think it’s a great gift, by the way~ Why are there headphones?”
“For crowded places. You won’t be thinking about all the other stuff that’s being said.”
“Oh. You noticed?”
She seems a little crestfallen.
“It’s fine, Misha. You’re just trying to keep Shizune in the loop.”
“Yeah… It’s hard when everyone is talking all at once~! Thanks, Hicchan~!”
She hands the bag to me and we stand awkwardly in the hall for a few seconds.
“C-can I get the right present, quickly? Then I’ll leave you to your nap, I promise~”
“Oh, uh, yeah. Give me a sec.”
Back in my room, Shizune is giving me another inquisitive look that I’m struggling to answer.
[That was… Kenji again. He came back to say he might be going away before Christmas. This is his present for me.]
Shizune eyes the MujiQlo bag eagerly and I’ve made the same mistake twice. Shit.
[He says I can’t open it in the presence of females. Sorry.]
Shizune is unimpressed by my excuse but I ignore the look she’s giving me.
[I’m going to give him his present quickly.]
I grab the bag with the whiteboard and the watch, then I tuck the brown bag and “Kenji’s present” onto the top shelf in my closet, where Shizune can’t get it easily. I catch her eye and shrug.
[Can’t be too safe.]
I duck out of my room, grinning while Shizune signs uselessly at my back.
“Here you go.”
Misha, unsurprisingly, looks in the bag right away.
“This is really good too~ She’s been saying she should get herself a new watch and everything! You’re good at this, Hicchan~”
“Thanks. Anyways, I’ll see you at dinner.”
“See you then~”
Misha positively skips down the hall and I go back into my room to where Shizune is waiting impatiently. She’s less cute now that she’s scowling but I can’t help but smile when I see her.
[Is that it for unexpected visitors?]
[I think so. Do you want to see what I got you to give to Misha?]
It’s plain she doesn’t, but Shizune humours me regardless.
[Let’s see it.]
I fish down the MujiYawa and keep it hidden behind my back until I’m close enough to Shizune to hand it to her with a flourish.
She turns it over in her hands and from the delight on her face, I suspect I should have bought her one too.
[MUJIYAWA. She’ll like this.]
[It’s supposed to represent her.]
Shizune thinks about that for a second.
[Because it’s soft and pink?]
[And because there’s a lion’s head.]
Seeing her bemused expression, I add that it’s because they’re loud.
[That’s clever. I like it. Thank you for all your help. Come keep me warm.]
As I climb into bed, I can’t help but laugh. I really am a great secret Santa.