In all the years he'd wandered, Bem realized that he'd never given anyone a gift before. He'd saved dozens of lives, but it wasn't exactly the same. He usually saved lives when humans needed him, and they usually replied with a horrified scream rather than a "thank you." Planning a gift ahead of time was something different indeed. So when Belo returned from a day at the playground with Yui-chan and started going on and on about presents, panic set in.
In the coming week, Natsume-san would be celebrating his birthday, Yui-chan had told Belo. "And they're going to throw him a surprise party!" Belo said in excitement, his cheerful voice echoing inside their makeshift metal home. "A surprise party with a cake and candles and presents! And we're invited, Yui-chan's mama said so!"
"So what?" Bela replied with a roll of her eyes. "That doesn't mean we have to go. Natsume-san's supposed to be a grownup. What's he got to celebrate?"
Belo stomped his feet. "We're going to the party! We're going to have cake. I've never been to a birthday party. Please, Bem, won't you come?"
But Bem had already started to pace the floor nervously. A surprise party for Natsume-san. A surprise party for his only human friend, Natsume-san. He could already picture the detective shaking the mystery box, staring at Bem curiously.
"What could it be?" Natsume-san would say. But then he'd open it, and the present would be a disappointment. And Natsume-san would just smile his usual kind smile and he'd say "thank you very much" even if the present was terrible. That would just make Bem feel even worse.
What did Bem know about giving presents? What would Natsume-san even want? He was a detective, but most of the stuff he needed to do his job he already had. His gun, his handcuffs, his badge and ID card. Not that Bem would know where to get those things if he didn't have them. Unless there was a police store somewhere...
He was so lost in his paranoia that he bumped right into Bela, and she knocked the hat off of his head in a huff. "And you're on another planet entirely," she complained. "Now listen, will you? I don't like surprises. So we're not going."
"But everyone likes surprises!" Belo complained.
Bem weighed his options - attend the party and risk giving Natsume-san a terrible present or spurn the invite and maybe disappoint Natsume-san even more. He retrieved his hat from the floor, setting it back on his head. He'd never had a friend before, and he knew that Natsume-san wasn't really fickle, but humans placed so much importance on gifts, on knowing just the right things to get each other to make the other person happy. How could he prove that he knew Natsume-san well enough? But if he didn't go to the party at all, he wouldn't be able to be there on his friend's precious day. How could he ever be human if he couldn't do something so simple?
Bela could see which way the wind was blowing, and she sat down with a sigh. "Well fine. But I'm not getting him a present."
The problem with birthday presents, Bem soon realized, was that they cost money. And that was difficult to come by if you weren't human and didn't work. He supposed he could simply make Natsume-san a present, but Belo had already cornered the market on that and was already halfway done with an elaborate crayon portrait of Natsume-san that Bela bluntly said looked like "a scrub brush with the head of a potato."
So that left Bem to buy Natsume-san a gift within his means. Though he'd lived for decades, it took a child's common sense to finally give him a clue. There were only two days left until the surprise party when Yui-chan dropped a few hints. Belo had probably said something, and Bem was incredibly grateful. Bem earned a few hundred yen cleaning out gutters at the old folks' home where Yui-chan's mother volunteered. There'd been no background check, no questions about his clothes or his hair or his hat. They'd just given him a ladder and set him to work.
With unhelpful gift suggestions from his fellow monsters (Belo suggested a helicopter and Bela "nothing"), Bem wandered down the aisles of the department store in utter confusion. The shopkeeps were pushy, spraying enough cologne at him without his consent to send him running for the bathroom in a hurry before his skin tore and he took on his natural form.
Once he'd calmed down, he found his way to the men's section. Bem couldn't afford a helicopter, but he definitely couldn't afford to give Natsume-san nothing. So when he saw the display just to the left of the ties, he felt happiness bubbling inside him. There it was, the perfect gift just within his price range. The sun had been bright outside when he'd entered the store, and it was pitch black when he left with his small bag in tow.
Bela, unsurprisingly, was not terribly impressed with Bem's find, but Belo thought it had some merit as a present. The woman at the store had given Bem an odd look when he'd asked for special gift wrapping, but she obviously couldn't understand. Bem had never had a friend to give a gift to before - it had to be absolutely perfect.
Natsume-san's face lit up as soon as the lights in the apartment came on, and Yui-chan and Belo set off the little poppers. "Happy birthday!" everyone shouted, save for Bela who mumbled it with some embarrassment.
Bem soon found Natsume-san's smile directed at him. "Bem-san," he said, brushing the tiny streamers from the party poppers out of his hair. "I'm so happy you all came."
They settled down for birthday cake, which Bem ate out of politeness but didn't care much for. Maybe when he became human his tastes would evolve. With each passing second, he fretted over the small gift-wrapped box concealed within his coat. Belo had already rudely shoved his artistic creation at Natsume-san, who'd nearly fallen over in appreciation. It already had a prominent place on the Natsume family refrigerator.
But what was the right timing to give his own gift? Nao-san had given Natsume-san a present that morning to try and keep her husband in the dark about the surprise party, and Yui-chan had just handed over a present of her own.
Bem watched quietly as Natsume-san unwrapped the gift, wondering if his own gift would remotely compare to something from the man's daughter. It was a picture frame, and Natsume-san immediately leaned over to hug Yui in gratitude.
"I couldn't have asked for anything better!" the detective declared, and Bem hunched over on his cushion on the floor. It was a photograph of the Natsume family, and Nao-san explained that she and Yui had gone through an old family album and found a picture of the four of them from the day Yui was born. Bem looked on as Natsume-san got to his feet, setting the frame down next to the other family photos with Makoto in them.
Natsume-san's eyes were filled with tears as he stood back and admired the photograph, seeing the smiling face of the son he'd cherished but lost. "Wow, I was so young here!" he said.
"Yeah, you were," Yui said with a teasing smile.
"Time sure has passed," Nao-san joined in.
Natsume-san feigned shock, launching himself at his daughter with a furious attack of tickling. "You take that back! Both of you! I'm not old!"
As the family laughed, hugged, and smiled, Bela set down her plastic fork. "I think we'd better be going."
Bem got to his feet as well, feeling the small box rustle around inside his coat. He'd definitely lost his chance now. It would be pointless to give Natsume-san such a meaningless gift after Yui-chan had surprised him with the family photo.
Belo seemed disappointed, but he wished Natsume-san a happy birthday, and Bela tugged him along out the door. Bem tugged his coat closely around him, unable to meet Natsume-san's eyes. "I'm so glad we were able to join you. Thank you very much for including us."
He left in a hurry, feeling rather stupid. Belo had had the right idea, and Yui-chan too. It didn't have to be about spending money. It seemed that the perfect gift among humans might be something without a price tag.
But there were soon footsteps behind him. "Bem-san! Bem-san, wait! Please!"
Bela and Belo were already a block ahead, and Bem halted, turning as Natsume-san approached. He held out a plastic container and was nearly out of breath.
"Cake...there was a lot leftover!" he explained, holding out the container. "Please take some home, Bem-san. I know you don't have a refrigerator, but, ah, it should keep okay in here."
Bem accepted the cake with a nod. Even now Natsume-san was taking care of him, giving the leftover food as a present when it should have been the other way around. "Ah, thank you."
"It really was a surprise," Natsume said as they walked together, heading in the direction of the monsters' hideaway. "I'm so glad you could come."
"I've never been to a birthday party before," Bem admitted, "I hope we did it correctly."
"I don't think there's a correct way to have a birthday party, for what it's worth. Just having you there was what mattered. Family matters, Bem-san. And friends do too. Thank you."
They turned the corner, nearly colliding with a couple of teenagers on skateboards. As they each jumped out of the way, the small gift box tumbled out of Bem's coat, hitting the ground with a dull thud. Natsume-san was quicker, picking up the box and brushing it off.
"Here you are," Natsume-san said, holding the box out. "Kids today, right? Ah, well, you'd probably know more about kids yesterday and the day before that, huh, Bem-san?"
Bem felt his face flush. "I...I actually..."
"Hmm? Something wrong?" Natsume-san asked.
"That box is..." Nothing special. Nothing valuable. Not a gift worthy of you, not a gift worthy of a true friend, Bem thought. Just a gift from a monster. "...for you."
"For me? A present for me?" It was Natsume-san's smile that Bem liked most, how easily it came to him. That so many little things could make him smile so readily was something Bem truly wished to experience himself someday. "Thank you very much. Can I open it?"
"...it's nothing, really."
Natsume unwrapped it anyway, and Bem pulled the brim of his hat low so he wouldn't be able to see his disappointment, his dissatisfaction with the stupid gift.
"Bem-san, you know me so well! This is great!"
Bem perked up at that, his heart racing as he looked up and saw Natsume-san beaming from ear to ear as he shook the bright pink pair of socks back and forth. Bem didn't know all of Natsume-san's history, and he didn't know all of his hobbies, but he'd been around the detective long enough to notice his footwear preferences.
"These are perfect!" Natsume-san continued, patting Bem on the shoulder. "Thank you!"
"They're really alright?" Bem asked nervously, trying to contain his happiness. His gift hadn't been a failure. He'd given a human a present, and he'd succeeded! "If they are the incorrect size, the woman at the store said I could return them so long as I had the receipt..."
Natsume-san's hand squeezed his shoulder, and he shook his head. "Are you kidding? They're wonderful. I was just telling Nao that I was running low on pink ones. It's like you're inside my head or something!"
Though Bem was fairly certain that Natsume had plenty of socks, and pink ones to boot, it still felt good to know that his gift would be useful. "It was no trouble," Bem said, even though it most definitely had caused him a lot of stress. "You are very welcome."
They reached the dockyards all too soon. Natsume-san was still holding onto the socks, Bem the plastic container of cake.
"Bem-san," Natsume said.
"For being a friend. For caring..." he mumbled, scratching at the back of his head with a shy smile. "I just think sometimes that you're more human than some of the actual humans i know. Ah, no offense of course. Haha. But, really, I can see how much you must have worked to get these for me, and for that I'm really grateful. And I'm really happy you could share today with me."
"I am also happy for that," Bem admitted. More than Natsume-san could even imagine.
"Well, so long then! It was nice to see you without a case getting in the way." With that Natsume-san headed off, waving the socks over his head as he departed.
Bem stayed outside a few minutes longer, popping off the lid and sticking his finger in the sugary sweet frosting of the leftover cake. It somehow tasted better than it had earlier that evening when he'd watched Natsume-san blow out the candles and make a wish. Bem had a wish of his own, to be human, and maybe now he was another step closer.