Someone small but surprisingly heavy slammed hard against his lower legs and sent him staggering forward. Next moment he knew, he found himself with a bunch of mistletoe hanging an inch away from his eyes and right up in the face of Agent Kay.
For a moment they looked at each other. Jay could see Kay's wrinkles and the pores on his nose.
To the left of them, someone small swooned on the floor with a cartoonish thud.
"So cute!" yelled one high-pitched, throaty voice.
"Kiss! Kiss!" piped up a couple more.
Of course. Jay rolled his eyes, reached up to the mistletoe, and yanked it down. A worm guy fell right into his arms.
"Yeah!" it screeched. "Cuddles!"
"I will show you cuddles," promised Jay, taking it firmly by the neck.
"Just a joke, Jay, just a joke!"
Whoosh thud! The worm guy landed on the desk of one of the agents, sending pencils and paper sheets flying in all directions.
"Sorry," shouted Jay, "just an accident!"
Kay huffed in amusement. The kid had certainly taken after him in some regards late Zed wouldn't be entirely happy with.
Jay turned back to him, a little flustered, and straightened his suit.
"Man," he said, "they're really outdoing themselves this year.
"What's with all the decorations, anyway? Far as I remember, the headquarters never bothered to be all that festive."
"Diplomatic protocol." Kay rummaged through the inner pockets of his jacket and produced two plush Santa hats. "In fact, put this on."
"What..? C'mon, man-" he was cut off by Kay reaching up and unceremoniously pulling one of the hats over his head.
"We're meeting a diplomatic mission from Ruscus," said Kay implacably. "You want to be polite, you need to wear the hat, slick."
"Aw." Jay gave his own reflection in the polished surface of a glass column a small glance. "My handsomeness can, sadly, only go so far in compensating for y'all's terrible sense of style."
Kay put on his own hat. It made him look like a large grumpy dog some brave kid decided to use in a game of dress-up. The fluffy white pom pom bounced briskly against his shoulder as he walked up the stairs leading to Oh's office.
Jay made sure to smile with the half of his mouth Kay couldn't quite see.
"I've never had dealings with Ruscus, Kay."
"No wonder. They're a reclusive bunch. Oh will explain everything in a moment."
"Agents." Oh stood by her round revolving desk, dressed in a short red and white jacket embroidered with silver thread, and held a cup of what smelled like spiced cookie latte. Jay swallowed his saliva. Damn, he needed some coffee.
Oh pushed a couple of buttons on the miniature remote she held in her hand, and a spherical hologram popped up right before Jay's nose.
"This is planet Ruscus."
It looked a lot like one of those light-up snow globes you could buy in Walmart for $30. Jay could make out miniature vortices of snow under the tender glowing surface, and deeper, below that he seemed to glimpse the outline of a dark forested landmass.
"It's situated in the Messier 31 galaxy, around 780 kiloparsecs from Earth. The population is in the vicinity of three billion Ruscusians. The nearest stars are the Sun of Ochsenbein, H456, and H700.
"The traditions and the formal attire of Ruscus," Oh allowed herself a little smile, "you're well familiar with."
"What you're trying to tell me here is that Christmas is of extra-terrestrial origin."
"And the entity known as Santa Claus is an alien. Many aliens." Kay waved his hand in the general direction of the shuttle terminal. "Here's one of them going through the customs."
Jay peered at the alien Kay had pointed out. Mostly it looked like a large red blob in a blanket.
"Mmhm," intoned Jay dubiously.
"What can I say," shrugged Kay, "people have one hell of an imagination."
Jay remembered celebrating Christmas as a child. It was one of the few occasions on which his father was allowed a day off from work. He'd come home, smelling of cold and eau de cologne, pick James up, and spin him around for a while. He used to say that was what it felt like to be in a supersonic plane or a spaceship. Then they cooked dinner together (or rather, his father graciously pretended that James was somehow vital to the process) and spent a quiet evening together watching old sitcoms on repeat.
He'd usually get a model plane or two as a gift, and though he knew that, every year it felt like a surprise.
By the age of four he was well aware that the milk and cookies he left out for Santa would really be his father's Boxing Day breakfast. He was pretty damn sure that he'd remember it if one day a giant red blob came in and ate their cookies instead.
"They no longer actually bring gifts," explained Kay, who must've foreseen that train of thought. "Or come into the houses. That stopped way back in the 20th century. People started filing too many breaking-and-entering complaints."
"Then what's with the diplomatic mission?"
"They want to try re-establishing trading relations," said Oh. "Maybe seek employment on Earth. It was a pretty big blow to them when they had to leave.
"You'll have to greet them and make some polite conversation. Nothing difficult. You'll be done in no time."
That reassurance, in retrospect, should've been a red flag from the beginning. But hindsight is 20/20, and at the moment Jay felt good about the assignment.
He glanced at his watch.
"When do they arrive?"
"At 45:57 universal galactic time," said Oh. "You have about half an hour."
"Then I'll go get some coffee." He winked at Kay and showed him two fingers. "I'm nice today, Kay. You'll have your black, two sugars. Just 'cause I love you that much."
Kay's face convulsed with a heroic attempt to repress a smile. Jay rolled his eyes at him, turned around, and sprinted down the winding staircase.
To reach the lounges, where the coffee machines were, he had to pass through the shuttle station. It was a fairly large space that looked a lot like the MiB segment of the Grand Central station, except that here the tubes were much bigger and vertical. This was one of the smaller shuttle stations in the country, mostly for diplomatic visitors and MiB agents who had to go to another planet for this reason or other.
A large rocket capsule rested in one of the nearest tubes, glowing a soft green. Jay glanced at the small screen attached to the tube. Ruscus, MC31. MiB was in the habit of keeping emergency shuttles on hand for diplomatic delegations.
"Surprise!" yelled a familiar voice from above. One of the worm guys bounced up before him and planted a messy kiss on his cheek. It felt a bit like being slapped with a large slug.
"Right," said Jay, and gave the worm a hearty kick. The alien flew a good three meters through the air and plopped against the floor of the Ruscus rocket capsule.
"Ouch! Carl! Carl!" shouted the rest of them, and rushed after their fallen brother.
FWOOP, went the hatch of the capsule. FWOOP, FWOOP, FWWWWWOOP.
"Here's your coffee," Jay said brightly when he walked back into Oh's office five minutes later. "In other news, I sent the worm guys to Ruscus."
"Good job," said Kay, taking his coffee.
For some minutes they stood in silence, sipping out of their cups. When the only thing left in Jay's cup was some cold spicy foam, he crumpled it up, sighed, and turned to Oh.
"They'll be all right," he said. "What can they do that'd be so terrible? I'm sure the Ruscusians will send them to us with the next cargo ship. We should contact their embassy."
"No need," said Oh. "They've already contacted us."
She clicked on something on her computer screen and once again pushed a button on the small remote. A holographic message appeared in the air before Kay and Jay.
"Don't read Ruscusian," said Jay.
"It says the worm guys attempted to assassinate their president, and now they're offended," informed him Kay.
"You will have to go to Ruscus and sort this out, agents. We've traditionally had a good relationship with them. Besides, we don't want the worms imprisoned."
"We don't?" Jay raised an eyebrow.
Oh huffed at him. "Not funny, agent Jay. I've already agreed to do you a favour. My generosity only stretches so far. Now off you go."
"Okay, okay, boss," said Jay pacifically, backing out of the office. "You're right."
He and Kay walked across the small landing and entered the second-floor gallery, which led to the MiB arsenal.
"Looks like Santa put a diplomatic incident in our socks this Christmas," muttered Jay. "In more ways than one."
"Looks like he put being a smartass in yours."
Jay laughed, baring a row of large white teeth. "I've been getting that for every Christmas since the day I was born, Kay."
Kay eyed him suspiciously.
"What was that about Oh and some favour she did you?"
"Oh, nothing. Just, uh, a pay raise. I wanted to buy myself somethin' nice for the occasion."
This was a lame lie, almost as if Jay was reluctant to deceive him. Kay decided to leave it be for the time. Let the kid keep his funny secrets.
Meanwhile they reached the arsenal. The face scanner made a soft hiss, and the door slid open, revealing a large sterile room as full of weaponry as a dragon cave might be full of jewels.
In a way, this was their dragon cave. Except that every gem in it had a precise and deadly purpose.
"What are we looking at here, Kay?"
"Just some local wildlife." Kay picked up a couple of smaller de-atomizers. "And, you know, better safe than sorry."
Jay hmphed and shoved his de-atomizer under his belt. Evidently the wildlife of Ruscus was worth reckoning with if a standard J2 was insufficient.
Kay put his own gun away and patted his breast pockets.
"Right, we're all set to go." He raised his head, gave Jay a cursory glance, and did a slight double-take. "There's coffee cream in your 'stache, sport."
He beckoned Jay closer, took out a snowy white handkerchief, and used it to carefully mop Jay's upper lip. Then he surveyed the results with some satisfaction.
Jay wanted to bristle at that and object that he was perfectly capable of caring after his own facial hair, but all he did was smile stupidly instead. The truth was, something in his chest had gone embarrassingly soft and warm.
He did his best to frown.
"Whatever," he murmured. "Look after your own appearance, old man."
Sometimes he was real damn glad that his skin tone meant he was incapable of visibly blushing.
They exited the arsenal and descended to the shuttle station. A large fire engine red cargo rocket floated in one of the tubes, its two hatches opened invitingly. The upper hatch was evidently for the cargo compartment; a small electric platform operated by a couple of agents carried some boxes along the tube and dumped them into that hatch.
"We're carrying a large shipment of milk and cookies," explained Kay. "Wheat and milk proteins are an extremely energy-efficient source of nutrition for Ruscusians. Hopefully that'll smoothen the parley."
"That explains the scale of America's dairy industry," commented Jay. "Around 20% of adult Americans are lactose intolerant. I've always thought all that milk must go somewhere."
They climbed into the capsule. Jay collapsed into the white leather seat and fastened the seatbelts. The hatch gently hissed shut; the bright white light overhead dimmed, and soon all they could make out in the warm gloom of the capsule was the softly glowing dashboard.
Ruscus on standby, said a pleasant female voice.
"You ever go through a warp jump before, slick?"
"A couple times while you were gone." Jay made a face. These were not pleasant memories.
"I don't think I have since you've deneuralyzed me," admitted Kay unexpectedly. "Here's to hoping the tech has evolved since."
If it had, Jay was hard pressed to notice a difference. The warp jump felt quite a bit like riding the Black Track (or, as he called it, "the MiB Choo-Choo"), except that apart from feeling like your intestines were crawling into your throat, you also felt like they shot out of your ears.
"Ow," groaned Jay when his inner organs came to something of a standstill. "Man, this couldn't have taken more than ten minutes. How come I feel ten years older? Ow, my lower back."
"Imagine how I feel," offered Kay unhelpfully.
He hovered his palm above the dashboard's unlocking mechanism, and Jay heard the soft hiss of depressurization. A breath of cool air came from the hatch.
They alighted in a tiny but cozy-looking spaceport. The dome-shaped building on the other side of the field gleamed with clean metal and golden lights.
"Their spaceports are fully automated," said Kay. "The population's too small to staff it properly.
"Oh relayed a message to them through the embassy, but it'll take the greeting party a while to get here. We may as well wait."
Jay cast a look at their surroundings. It was not such a bad place to wait in. The ground was covered in what looked quite a bit like Earth's snow, except considerably more iridescent. Above their heads, the sky glowed with unfamiliar constellations; and three moons of different colours hung in the darkness like a string of fairy lights.
"This snow doesn't melt," remarked Kay. "The crystalline structure and the presence of local minerals raise its melting point into thousands in Kelvin. Try it."
Jay picked up a handful of sparkling white flakes. Though his skin quickly warmed them up, they indeed remained quite solid.
They stood for a few minutes in comfortable silence. Wind whistled through the dark mass of the forest that surrounded the landing field.
"You got any plans after this, Kay?"
Kay gave him a mildly baffled look.
"You seem to have me confused with someone else," he said. "What plans? Not like anyone's waiting at home."
Jay shrugged. "Not like anyone waited at home for me when I was your average cop, either. Didn't stop me eating some ice cream and watching movies. Maybe we should go for a slice of your dumb pie when we're done."
Kay was silent for a moment.
"You were never an average anything, kid," he said at last, quietly, and gave Jay an awkward but firm pat on the shoulder.
Jay was about to mention that that sounded like a damn awkward way of saying yes, but a sudden noise interrupted him. It was a high-pitched, melodious sort of whistle, and it came from high above their heads.
"Ha," said Kay, "that'll be the Ruscusians."
A bullet-shaped... thing appeared in the crowns of the nearby trees; then another. They looked a lot like flying snowmobiles, with a few exhaust pipes facing directly downwards and spitting out pale fire.
"I see reindeer are no longer hi-tech enough," muttered Jay.
The first of the vehicles neared the port and, upon spotting them, descended to the field. It landed about fifteen metres away, sending fountains of unmelting snow flying in all directions.
Now that he saw it up close, Jay could make out a Ruscusian sticking out of the middle. The alien turned to them; its face was a bit like the muzzle of a large friendly mole.
It took out a loudspeaker. Jay was familiar with these - they were frequently used in intergalactic diplomacy and came with a universal translator and an automatic voice modulator.
He could hear other ships landing behind their back.
"Greetings, humans," said Ruscusian no. 1. "We hope you've been nice this year. Ho ho ho!"
This was met with low-pitched bird-like sounds from other Ruscusians, which, Jay guessed, were what their real laughter sounded like.
"Please make your way into my sled. We will take you to the city."
Jay and Kay climbed into the ship. Jay was grateful for their Santa hats now; though the air wasn't that cold, the wind got stronger the higher they ascended. He had no doubt he'd come back with an ear infection if not for the hat.
There wasn't a lot of room in the ship, and he, Kay, and the Ruscusian were all squished together. The alien's big body was very warm. Jay's hands pressed against it felt like he was touching a baking oven.
They spent around ten minutes flying low over the tree crowns before the city appeared on the horizon. It consisted of domes, much like the one in the spaceport. The slate grey roofs reflected the light of the moons; here and there Jay could glimpse small landing strips illuminated a warm orange.
One dome was larger than others, separated from the rest of the city by a field and an alley. Their ship began to descend until finally they were hovering mere inches above the alleyway. Other Ruscusians landed on the left and the right of them; they were chirping to each other in an anticipatory manner.
"Jay! Kay! Haha, they came for us! Told ya! Told ya!"
It was patently impossible not to notice the worm guys when they were in your general vicinity. And sure, they may have been annoying little bastards 95% of the time, but damn if Jay wasn't glad to see them. He glanced at Kay. Kay, of course, had his customary poker face on, but Jay knew the difference between his pleased frown and his unhappy frown. This was the pleased kind.
Sometimes a family is a bunch of worm aliens and a guy whose face looks like a rock.
The worms were led by a couple of Ruscusian guards. At some distance from them, another Ruscusian was heading towards Kay and Jay; its clothes were brighter and more lavishly decorated than those of the greeting party. Although in Jay's private opinion, all that did was make the alien look like it was wearing a blanket from IKEA rather than one bought from a charity shop.
The Ruscusian stopped a couple meters away from them and blinked languidly.
"Hi," said Jay. "We've brought you milk and cookies. Would you like to discuss the misunderstanding our friends here have run into?"
The alien made a low pleased sound at the words "milk and cookies". Evidently it knew that much English, at least. Then it proceeded to chirp at length to the Ruscusian who'd accompanied them on their flight.
"Thank you, humans," conveyed their Ruscusian friend through the universal translator. "The incident brought us considerable distress. The prisoners came to our planet and attacked multiple officials, seeking to harm us with their corrosive mouth secretions.
"Our data shows that their bodies produce isobutylphenylpropionic acid."
Jay had had his suspicions before. But now he knew exactly what had happened to get the worms in this sort of trouble.
"They didn't mean it," he said. "They've done the same thing to me and my partner here, and, I imagine, to a good half of the rest of the MIB.
"They're just," he groped for a tactful way to put it and found none, "they're pretty stupid."
The Ruscusians looked at him with some uncertainty. Jay sighed.
"Well, c'mon, then," he said to the worms. "You have my permission."
He didn't have to ask twice. In a moment he was ambushed from six directions at once and kissed all over the face.
There were traces of worm saliva on his cheekbones and his forehead. A bunch of mistletoe got stuck in his hair and refused to come out when he tugged at it.
"Damn," was his comment. "The sacrifices I make for this job!"
The expression on the Ruscusians' faces were those of mild horror. Evidently they were expecting Jay to collapse any moment now.
"See," said Jay to them, "I'm fine. Granted, I'm disgusted. But thankfully not to the point of death."
"Can we kiss Kay, too?" cooed the worms.
Kay gave them a slow look. "You try that," he said, without much emotion. The worms made a few steps back, towards the guards. Evidently as threats went, they preferred incarceration to Kay.
It was in that moment that Jay noticed that something was off. One of the lights illuminating the dome before them was flickering.
Now, on Earth Jay would've hardly paid much attention to a flickering light. But here, on a planet that was in below-zero temperatures all galactic year round, an uninterrupted supply of electricity was evidently the one thing the native population relied upon. To that moment, Jay hadn't seen a single unlit window; not one inactive source of light.
"Everyone down," he yelled, mostly at Kay, who was standing between him and the flickering light. Kay reacted to that immediately by flopping face first into the snow; and Jay fired his de-atomizer.
The muzzle spat out a large blob of blue hot energy. Something on the far end of the alley crashed and shattered; then a shower of flaming pellets covered the ground before Jay's shoes. Their invisible adversary was returning fire.
Kay rolled over, leaned on his elbows, and began firing in response. He immediately de-atomized half a tree and the front of one of the Ruscusian vehicles. Kay was never really one for subtlety. His favourite strategy was to break as many things around as it took for his enemy to be sufficiently intimidated.
Unfortunately, the tree that stopped them from hitting their target precisely was also the only object shielding them from the shooter, and the instant it was gone, the snow around them exploded with fire. Jay pushed Kay out of the way just in time for the pellets to burrow harmlessly into the ground instead of into Kay's upper body.
Jay fired one last time, and finally the landing field fell silent.
"Appreciate the save, slick," commented Kay breathlessly, "but gotta say, you're a bit heavy."
Jay, who was lying directly on top of him, grinned at that.
"All muscle, man," he informed Kay. "180 lbs of pure lean muscle. Damn, I'm glad I worked out. You were about to kick the bucket there."
A beat, and Kay grinned back at him, his crow’s feet crinkling.
"Sure was. Right, get off me, Mike Tyson. Let's go investigate that shooter."
The Ruscusians around them were starting to raise their heads from the snow and glancing around fearfully. They were clearly no fighters. Not that Jay necessarily expected Santa Claus to kick massive ass.
The body of their assailant - or rather, what remained of it - was sprawled out in the snow at the base of the dome. The ground around it was soaked through with a kind of thick, steaming blue ichor.
"Inverian class B," said Kay upon inspecting it, and adjusted his somewhat ruined jacket. "Their galactic state had a vendetta against Ruscus. We thought they were all extinct by now."
Well, there’s always that one Christmas surprise.
The rest of the parley passed uneventfully and remarkably swiftly. Evidently the Ruscusians feared another incident of some sort. Jay couldn't exactly blame them; their experience with the MIB so far had consisted of a politically unfortunate misunderstanding involving pervert worms and a barely-averted assassination attempt.
"Isobutylphenylpropionic acid is ibuprofen," he told Kay as they boarded the cargo rocket, both holding an armful of worms. "What's up with that?"
"I suppose that's for increasing their pain tolerance threshold," said Kay. One of the worms looked suspiciously like it was about to attempt to kiss him, and he whacked it against the dashboard. "See? Barely does anything."
"Yeah, I guess," said Jay. "They didn't seem that badly hurt when Serleena slashed some of them in half. Wish we had this kinda resilience. You wouldn't have exactly put yourself back together if that Inverian shot ya."
"Good thing you work out, then."
"Yeah, well." Jay shrugged. "The idea that you might have to save your partner's ass someday is good motivation, you know."
Kay's wrinkles once again deepened in a lopsided grin. Damn, Jay was glad to see him smile. It made him feel all accomplished like, a lot like completed assignments did. Maybe, he thought, that was his personal assignment. Making that grumpy old bastard happy.
"Dumb pie?" he asked.
"Dumb pie," conceded Kay, and slammed the launch lever.
The warp jump felt more bearable this time. Maybe he was developing a tolerance. Or, more likely, he was just happy to be home.
Once they released the worms and watched them immediately take off in the direction of the nearest coffee machine (they certainly had their priorities, mused Jay), they walked back to Oh's office for a briefing. Oh was sitting in her chair, a remote in her hand, and reading some of her newest correspondence.
"Ah, agents," said she, and smiled. "Good job. Our diplomatic relations with Ruscus couldn't be better, and they're planning to award you the Ruscus Medal of Semi-Accidental Usefulness for your bravery."
"The Medal of Semi-Accidental Usefulness?" Jay raised an eyebrow.
"One of the highest awards given out to foreigners," Oh told him sternly. "Now, I have something to give to you."
She slid her hand in one of the pockets of her elegant red jacket and extracted a miniature memory stick. Then she threw it to Jay, who caught it with one hand and nodded in acknowledgement.
"We've all tried to contribute to this, agent Jay," she said. Then, unexpectedly, she rose and gave both of their hands a firm shake. There was earnestness in her expression of the sort she, as an MIB chief of staff, rarely allowed herself to show. "You have yourself a good Christmas. You’re good men.” She paused for a moment, her eyes sparkling with something almost like mischief. “To work with.”
“What in hell was that?” inquired Kay once they left her office and headed towards the exit. “Has the Ruscusian affair got her in a Christmas mood?”
“You’ll see.” Jay nodded at the memory stick he was twirling between his fingers. “In a minute.”
It was more like ten minutes to the diner and fifteen minutes to Kay's new place, but that was still too fast for Jay. He was kind of ashamed of himself there, if he was honest with himself. Kay might've been up to an affectionate quip or two on his good days, but surely there was a limit to that tolerance. His gift might be... well. It might not be that welcome. It might make shit awkward. That thought didn't make Jay feel so good.
Still, it was too late to back out, and anyway, Jay was too stubborn to admit to himself he was having cold feet. For the worse or for the better, he had always been a stubborn kid.
His decisiveness solidified when they entered Kay's apartment, a dark and silent place, clean like a hospital room.
They only had each other, after all.
"Well," said Kay with benign amusement, and gestured with a plateful of cherry pie. "Show me that grand secret you and Oh have been keeping from me. I'm not ashamed to admit I'm damn curious at this point."
"You take a look," replied Jay, and handed him the memory stick.
Kay used a remote to dim the overhead lights, and popped the stick into his MIB-issue plasma (what agents were supposed to do with it had never been quite clear to Jay - there are only so many episodes of X-Files you can watch when you're a cop in the intergalactic weird shit police). Then he settled on the couch beside Jay and put a large chunk of steaming pie in his mouth.
Oh's face appeared on the screen. She was leafing through a plain beige folder, one of those MIB kept things in when they were too sensitive for an electronic network. Then she looked straight at the camera.
"During the period between years 1997 and 2002 senior agent Jay neuralyzed over 50 agents from the MIB personnel who were assigned to him as partners."
Kay choked on his pie. For a moment Jay was afraid the whole thing might turn into an impromptu first-aid training session, but fortunately Kay was an experienced pie-eater and soon caught his breath.
"Agent A, neuralyzed for excessive nervousness. Agent P, for recklessness. Agent H, for-" she raised an eyebrow, "eating his sandwiches too loudly?
The recording switched to a different scene. Zed. It brought a smile to Jay's face to think that the old man had cared enough to agree to this nonsensical idea.
"Damn it, Kay," growled Zed. "When I agreed to take the kid in despite his problems with authority, I was not prepared for that to mean that he'd have a problem with literally everyone other than yourself. He's a damn good agent, perhaps the best I have after you. But he came to me the sixth time he neuralyzed his newest partner, I knew this was trouble. How was I supposed to give him someone he'd get along with if the only character trait he was looking for was "my partner is Kay"?"
Jay dared to give Kay a glance. Kay's mouth hung slightly open. Plainly, he looked like his pie had just spoken to him in Queen's own English.
"Not my place to say things about senior agent Jay," said a young agent on the screen, and snorted with laughter, "but there was a joke going around about him, that he'd neuralyze you if you breathe at him wrong. Only thing made him mellow was if you talked to him about the legendary Kay's missions."
And after that there was more of the same, from all kinds of MIB staff, describing Jay's time as Kay's "trigger-happy replacement". Three words were repeated over and over. Neuralyzed. Unhappy. And "Kay".
"Welcome back, agent Kay," said Oh. "We're all glad to see you here. But perhaps your partner more than most."
And the recording ended.
For a few moments they sat in silence. Then Jay got too nervous for his own liking.
"Kay?" he called cautiously. No answer. Jay carefully turned his head.
Kay was crying.
He was never much good at handling his emotions, Kay, and now he seemed unsure what to do about his own state. Covering his face with his hands or wiping his tears off was never much Kay's style, and so he just sat there, blinking rapidly. Tears were running through his wrinkles and down his big nose.
"Hey, um," said Jay intelligently, and ran out of words.
He'd expected a light-hearted quip or two. Some teasing, maybe. But definitely not this.
"'Eating his sandwiches too loudly'? Really now, kid?" Kay laughed a little and immediately sobbed again. "What the hell."
"If you heard him chewing, you wouldn't be laughing," protested Jay in a voice that was altogether too strained for a comeback like that.
"So you wrecked the headquarters and the personnel list just 'cause I was gone?"
"I formed an emotional attachment and endangered everything, as you do," offered Jay, all faux light-heartedness.
Kay didn't speak for a while.
"Love you, you dumb kid," he said at last, choked. Jay's heart skipped a beat, and he had to grit his teeth to hold back some tears of his own. His cheeks were burning.
"Love you too, you grumpy old bastard."
Last time Jay hugged anyone, he was a kid, and he wasn't sure Kay had ever hugged anyone, period. So what followed was about the awkwardest preparation for a hug imaginable. Jay got one of his arms around Kay, but it turned out Kay was about to get both of his arms around Jay, and somehow that didn't work out so well. And so forth.
"Found one thing you're no good at," murmured Jay into Kay's shoulder.
"Not like it's a part of the professional requirements," grumbled Kay. His large hand was resting on the back of Jay's head, gently pressing against his curly hair. Jay could feel the cold of the steel band of Kay's watch against his skin.
"Would be kinda funny if it were."
They stayed like that for a small while.
"Hey," Kay said, gently. And then, "James."
And Jay felt that no red Christmas blob could've brought him as much happiness as that one word.
They didn't talk about that afterwards. Mostly they just made merciless fun of the inaccuracies in the first season of X-Files. But Jay had a distinct feeling that something, though implicitly, was changed for good.
"I have something for you too, slick," said Kay as the evening drew to a close and Jay prepared to drive home. "Here."
It was a CD in a transparent box inscribed simply "J's Mixtape". Jay looked at it in wonder.
"Just a little somethin' I compiled for you." Kay shrugged awkwardly. "I know you like listening to this sort of stuff when driving. Hope I got your tastes right."
It was news to Jay that Kay paid any attention to his musical tastes, but then that whole day consisted of nothing but news.
"Thanks, Kay," he said, moved. "I'll give it a go. Damn, I'd listen to it even if it consisted solely of your hillbilly music, so don't worry 'bout that."
"Hillbilly music" was about as far from the contents of that CD as Ruscus was from Earth. On his drive home Jay had ample opportunity to see that Kay had listened every time he'd praised or complained about a singer. That stuff was the freshest of the fresh, and Jay bobbed his head to the beat as he drove down 4th Street.
He didn't exactly know when something pinged him as funny about the list of the compositions on his car display. He knew only that he began to glance at that list every now and then, and that finally, when he pulled over in his driveway, he realized exactly what was so curious about it.
- The Sky Is a Neighbourhood.
- American Dreams.
- No Roots.
- You've Got a Friend.
- One Night Only.
- Juju On That Beat.
Jay read the first letters of the song names. Then again. Then he laughed. It must've taken Kay a while to find the necessary songs and put them together in this order. And damn if that wasn't one of the most heartwarming gifts Jay had ever got.
Thank you, Jay.