The plan, as Ayu had understood it, was that she would spend the day as she usually did, helping Ippei from the bakery with his annual sale (without Hagu this year, as the Hanamotos had already gone home to Nagano), until five o'clock or thereabouts, when Nomiya would come to whisk her away to dinner at an undisclosed location.
So much for understanding the plan.
"What." She squinted in the stark light of morning. Her breath made a disheveled white haze in the air. "Are you doing here. At this hour. Wearing that."
Nomiya adjusted his beard. Not even Morita had ever worn a beard with his Santa suit, thought Ayu. She went on squinting. She might have been making a horrible face.
Nomiya was smiling. "I heard you were under-staffed," he said.
"I'm sorry," said Ippei, when Ayu cornered him--while Nomiya greeted the first set of customers, for all the world as if he sold Christmas cakes for a living every day--and Ippei looked more cheeky than sorry. "He volunteered. Your mother seemed to think it was fine, since the two of you were going out this evening anyway--"
"--and we really were short-handed, without your friend from school. I hope you're not upset?"
"No," she said slowly, not quite reluctantly, turning to watch as Santa Nomiya handed a red balloon to a little boy, who responded by seizing Santa Nomiya's beard in one small fist and yanking it off. The boy's mother clapped a hand over her mouth and launched into an apology, which was only halfway spoiled by muffled titters. "It's okay," Ayu said, and it really was okay, because Nomiya looked absurd, and the chance to see him looking absurd was so precious and rare and heartwarming that she couldn't help feeling like it was a gift, or maybe some kind of Christmas miracle.
Even if the price was letting him see her in a Santa suit. She supposed it was only fair.
Nomiya let the little boy keep his beard. "It itched," he admitted, after the boy and his mother had gone. Ayu shuffled closer to him and poked the snowy faux-fur cuff of his sleeve.
"Where'd you find this thing, anyway? It's not one of ours."
"Online. Only 3800 yen, if you can believe it."
Before she could ask whether he and Morita had been passing notes, she was distracted by a stage whisper from behind.
"Is that the boyfriend?"
It was her aunt Akiko, helping her mother bring out the tureen of hot amazake. Her mother answered sotto voce.
"You'd have to ask Ayumi. She's been so close-lipped. But they are going out tonight, and Christmas Eve being Christmas Eve...."
"Well, he must be! What man would put on that silly getup and suffer through an entire day of cake-mongering if he weren't!"
"That's what I thought, but--"
"YES, HE IS," announced Ayu. Mulishly. "And you can please stop talking about us like we're not here."
Silence fell. Ayu looked at neither her mother nor Aunt Akiko nor Nomiya nor Ippei, only busied herself straightening the stacks of cake boxes--which were already perfectly neat--on the table in front of her. At least the Santa hat hid her burning ears. As her mother and Aunt Akiko retreated she ladled herself a cup of amazake, and wished it were something stronger when she caught a glimpse of Nomiya's grin.
The rest of the day passed without incident. She managed not to glower when Nomiya made eyes at the neighborhood housewives (which was good for business, like it or not). After the last cake was sold they went to her parents' place to change. Ayu stared into her bedroom mirror with some alarm at her case of hat-hair. It was small consolation that Nomiya's would be just as bad. Instead of despairing she pulled her hair into a ponytail and put on a sweater dress, short and fitted, with leggings underneath. She thought Aunt Akiko might have had a point about cake-mongering in Santa cosplay, and maybe a reward was in order. When she added the sleek boots that came up to her knees they'd make her legs look a mile long.
She nearly collided with Nomiya in the hall outside the bathroom, only to find that somehow he didn't have hat hair, after all. He had on a black jacket and a cream-colored shirt and looked...edible, really. The unfairness of it made her puff out her lower lip. "Here," she said, thrusting a gift bag in the direction of his midriff, before she could lose her nerve.
"For me?" He looked delighted.
"It's not that exciting," she warned, then ducked into the bathroom for as long as it took him to open the bag. When she came out again he was holding up the hand-thrown tea mug and beaming.
"Finally," he said. "My own Yamada original."
He wasn't faking, either. Somehow that made his pleasure harder to endure, never mind that part of her (okay, most of her) had wanted it. She squirmed a little, feeling like a kindergartener who'd given someone a reindeer lovingly hand-crafted from pipe cleaners. Not that she thought her work was bad, or childish--she knew it wasn't--but there was a level of either innocence or brazen ego, she thought, in giving your own art as a gift. To someone you...liked. A lot. Were maybe more or less in love with.
"You've put mine to shame," he said, turning the mug in his hands to admire the colors in the glaze. "My present, I mean. But it's in the car." He looked up from behind his glasses. "If I'm a good boy next year, can I have a sake set?"
She thought about that, as they walked to the car: that he expected there would be a next year, with such ease that she found herself expecting it, too. That he appreciated what she made, and wanted more of it. She thought about his lips on the rim of a cup her hands had shaped, and hugged herself against the December wind.
The box waiting on the passenger seat was so small it could only contain jewelry. As Ayu sat down to unwrap it her heart began to thud, less with girlish palpitations than with sudden dread that he might've bought her something of a caliber she wasn't prepared to handle. 22 carat gold? Platinum? Diamonds?! Surely he knew she wasn't ready for diamonds yet. She sucked in a breath and opened the box.
The chain inside was silver. Her relief was immense. Silver, silver was tolerable--better yet, the chain was a charm necklace. A charm necklace couldn't portend anything drastic. She held up the chain and peered at the dangling charms.
There was a tiny silver slice of cake.
A tiny silver beer mug.
A tiny silver toilet bowl?
"It's amazing, all the different charms they make these days," Nomiya was saying, blithely, as he started the car and turned up the heat. "Some of the ones I looked at were pretty detailed. Not to say anatomical. I thought about a bracelet, too, but it'd get in the way, wouldn't it. When you're working."
And to think she'd been worried about diamonds. "A toilet?" she wailed. "You're giving me a toilet."
He looked surprised. "You can't have forgotten our first date."
Of course as soon as he said it she remembered. Not the impromptu drive to Tateshina, but the night of great vomitous misery. One of her finest hours. She clutched the tiny silver cake and beer and toilet bowl, hiding her face behind her closed fist.
"To be accurate," he added, "it should've been more like six beers, and six pieces of cake--"
She thumped him on the shoulder, hard enough to make him laugh out loud, and went on pummeling until her urge toward violence subsided.
"Thank you," she huffed at last. "I'll treasure it always." If this was some sort of punishment--like the awful things the losers were made to do on game shows--for her recalcitrance, for being slow to learn his worth, she meant to bear it womanfully, but as she fiddled with the clasp he said "Hold on," and dug into his coat pocket.
The final charm, glinting between his fingers, was a tiny silver ferris wheel.