The bright red paper bag, tied at the handles with a glittering spill of green and gold and white ribbons, was not what Goura had expected to find crammed well at the back of the lower kitchen cupboard. It could not have been sitting there for very long -- hardly any dust had collected on top of the ribbons, and the bag's glossy paper was still clean and smooth to the touch -- but he had no idea how it might have ended up there in the first place. There was only one other person who could have had anything to do it, so he extricated the bag from its cramped location and raised his voice to be heard in the next room over. 'Yumoto?'
Within seconds, Yumoto poked his head around the kitchen's door frame. He was mostly dressed for the day, though his hair still needed to be combed and his mouth was full of toothbrush. 'Yesh, Ansh-schan?' he said, his words slurring frothily around the plastic handle.
'I was looking for the shoe polish kit for your new shoes, and I found this.' He got to his feet and held up the bag. 'Was this yours?'
Yumoto's eyes went wide with shock, and he gulped down what was surely an unhealthy amount of toothpaste foam as he whipped the toothbrush out of his mouth. 'Oh, no!' he moaned. 'It's the student council's Christmas presents! I completely forgot about them!'
'The ones you bought back in December? I thought you'd sent them off before we had the Christmas party here. And weren't you also planning to make something sweet for...?' Goura trailed off, and suddenly turned a much more suspicious eye on the bag. 'There wasn't anything...perishable in here, was there?' he said warily. He hadn't thought to open it to look, and the prospect of doing so had just taken on a more sinister dimension.
'No, nothing like that,' Yumoto said, shaking his head sorrowfully. 'It's only the things I bought that are in there -- they were presents, so I hid them in the cupboard, but then I forgot all about them. And they sent us that nice Christmas photo of themselves, too!' he added, almost in a wail.
Somewhat relieved, Goura lowered the bag. He wasn't entirely sure why Yumoto had thought to hide presents for people who wouldn't have been around to stumble upon them in the first place, but his younger brother's logic frequently worked in ways that he couldn't begin to comprehend. 'You can still give them their presents, you know,' he said soothingly. It wouldn't do for Yumoto to start out the morning feeling upset, on today of all days. 'Once the graduation ceremony is finished, we can invite everyone to come over when -- '
Yumoto gasped. 'The graduation ceremony!' Quick as a flash, he darted forward and seized the bag of presents right out of Goura's hand, shoving his dripping toothbrush into its place. 'I've got to get to the school right away! I'll see you there soon, An-chan!' And before Goura could even think to react, Yumoto had thundered out of the kitchen, with only a distant crash and a muffled shout of 'I'll be going now!' heralding his abrupt departure from the Kurotama bathhouse.
Goura stared at the empty doorway, then looked down at the abandoned toothbrush. Everything had happened so fast that he could barely remember what he had found in the first place that had sent Yumoto into such a frenzy. All that he could think to say aloud was, 'What's gotten into him all of a sudden?'
The toothbrush, as might be expected, was not very forthcoming with answers.
* * *
'You've certainly cleaned up well, Yufuin-san.'
En gave Ibushi a flat look, and tugged gingerly at his necktie, which for once was knotted correctly and worn with a neatly pressed, fully buttoned-up shirt. The red-and-white rosette and ribbon that marked him as a member of Binan's graduating class hung perfectly straight from its pin on his jacket, thanks to Atsushi's fussing over it as soon as they'd arrived at the school.
'I figured I could stick to the dress code for one day,' he said, with the air of a perfect martyr. He looked around the school grounds at the slowly arriving trickle of Binan students who were similarly attired in their best-looking uniforms. 'Just so that you couldn't say that I never listened to the president here.'
Kinshirou raised an eyebrow. 'In that case,' he said, 'you should be thankful that more formal attire is not required of the graduating class.' His own uniform was so crisp and white that it was almost painful to look at him.
'Eh, I've got a suit somewhere in my room.' En jerked his thumb at Atsushi, who blinked in surprise. 'Atsushi here's the one who has the full kit -- hakama and tassel-whatsits and fancy socks and everything. Makes him look like he tripped and fell out of a costume drama. You really want to see that?'
'Oh, just wait until we turn twenty,' Ibushi said, his smile widening into a grin. 'I fully expect that Kinshirou will show up to our coming-of-age ceremony with two swords and half his head shaved.' He took a sudden step forward, raising his arm as if holding up an imaginary seal of office, and let his voice ring out with lofty, archaic command. 'Down on thy knees, varlets! Dost thou not see the Binan crest?'
'Arima!' Kinshirou exclaimed, half indignant and half mortified, as both En and Atsushi burst out laughing at the old samurai TV show reference. He glanced around furtively, checking to be sure that no one had overheard them. 'Am I the only one here who thinks that we ought to take today at least a little seriously?'
En rolled his eyes, though he was still smiling. 'We've got the rest of our lives to be serious, President,' he said. 'You only have the authority to scold us about it for....' He took out his phone and made an elaborate show of checking the time. 'Two more hours.'
'Let's just have fun today, Kin-chan,' Atsushi said calmly, before Kinshirou could work himself further into a snit. 'Graduations are supposed to be about making good memories, right?'
It was a reasonable request, and Kinshirou couldn't very well refuse it from Atsushi of all people. 'Very well,' he said, resigned to letting the matter drop, and ignored En in favour of turning to Ibushi. 'We should ensure that the audiovisual club has run a final check on the electronic equipment before the hall is opened to the audience, though. I would rather do so now, in case the faculty representative wants us to confirm the final count of the diplomas before they are brought to the stage.'
Even though he hadn't put any particular emphasis on the word diplomas, his statement had an odd effect on the four of them. En's gaze drifted away from his friends, and he stuffed his hands in his trouser pockets, shifting uneasily from foot to foot. Atsushi briefly fiddled with his own red rosette before hastily pulling his hand away from it, as if the ribbon had somehow burned his fingertips. And judging by the solemn look that had fallen over their faces, Ibushi and Kinshirou seemed to realise that with that one word, something in the air had subtly changed. The magnitude of the upcoming ceremony was starting to sink in for all of them. In two hours, as En had said, they wouldn't be members of the Binan High School Student Council or Earth Defense Club any longer.
In two hours, everything would be different.
Atsushi was the first to try to break the awkward silence. 'Kin-chan, do the two of you need any help with -- '
Startled at the interruption, the four third-years turned their heads to face the sound of the eager shouts, which came from the direction of the steps that led up the long hill to the school grounds. Barrelling up the stairs and towards them at breakneck speed was Yumoto, scarlet-faced and dishevelled, carrying a red bag that swung and bumped against his legs as he ran. For the last ten yards, he managed to decelerate enough to turn his sprint into a skid, but as he came to a halt in front of the upperclassmen it was all he could do to bend over and gulp down great lungfuls of air. Even as he tried to speak, his words wouldn't come out.
'Yumoto?' Atsushi moved forward to meet him, his expression turning worried. En wasn't far behind, and Kinshirou and Ibushi soon joined them in a concerned half-ring around Yumoto.
Shaking himself like a dog coming out of the water, Yumoto tried again, this time looking up at Kinshirou and Ibushi with a desperate plea for them to understand him. 'You...here...presents!' he managed to gasp out, and plunged his arm almost up to the elbow into the bright red bag he was carrying. As the baffled third-years looked on, Yumoto unearthed a jumble of boxes, each one wrapped in a different, garishly-coloured wrapping paper -- unmistakably Christmas-themed wrapping paper -- and cradled them in his arms, against his heaving chest.
'Why are they -- ' Kinshirou began, confused.
'Are those supposed to be reindeer?' Ibushi said, almost simultaneously, his attention caught by the strange-looking creatures that adorned the paper of one of the wrapped boxes. He could be forgiven for asking for confirmation; the reindeer in question seemed to owe much more to their artist's imagination than to the anatomy of the actual animal.
Even though he was struggling to slow his breathing, Yumoto made a third attempt to explain himself. 'Meant to be...for Christmas...just now....'
'Take it easy, Yumoto,' En said, not liking the fact that Yumoto was still red in the face. 'Get your breath back first.'
'Maybe you should sit down,' Atsushi added, looking around to see if there was any spot nearby where Yumoto could set his burden down and recover from his mad uphill dash.
'I'm fine, I'm fine!' Yumoto insisted. His colour was starting to return to normal, and his breath was coming more easily. He hugged the presents tightly, cuddling them close as he had cuddled Wombat so many times that year, and kept his focus on Ibushi and Kinshirou. 'I was going to send these presents to you and Akoya-senpai back in December, but with one thing and another and the Christmas party and the New Year's blizzard and the monsters I forgot all about them. I'm really really sorry!' He bobbed his head in as near to an apologetic bow as he could manage without dropping the gifts.
Yumoto's apology was sincere enough, but at the word monsters, Kinshirou's eyes had narrowed -- and Atsushi and En both grimaced and inwardly braced themselves for an explosion. It wasn't Yumoto's fault, but they knew what was coming. As soon as the drama of the confrontation at the VEPP Theatre had been resolved and everyone had detransformed, Kinshirou had wasted no time in pulling both of the Defense Club's third-years aside and laying into them for a full five minutes over their sheer foolhardiness and gross irresponsibility and reckless, inconsiderate abandon in not informing the student council members immediately of the VEPPers' threat to Binan High School and the Defense Club members themselves. (En hadn't helped matters by smiling a tired but lazy smile and remarking aww, President, I didn't know you cared so much about us when Kinshirou finally paused to catch his breath, and there was a good chance that Kinshirou would have throttled En on the spot if Yumoto and Goura hadn't herded everyone over to the Kurotama then and there for a post-battle recovery bath.) But just as Kinshirou started to open his mouth, Ibushi held out a hand to Yumoto.
'Did you want us to open them now?' he said, gesturing towards the wrapped boxes in Yumoto's arms. 'We still have a few minutes before we need to head inside, right?' He looked over at Kinshirou, seemingly for confirmation, but there was a meaningful light in his eyes that made the student council president swallow back whatever tirade he had been about to launch into, and give a single curt nod.
'Oh, would you? That'd be great!' Yumoto beamed, and juggled the boxes until he could deposit two of them into Kinshirou and Ibushi's hands. 'You see,' he said, 'they already have the labels on them, for president and vice president and everything, and if I'd waited until after the graduation ceremony they wouldn't be labelled properly anymore and I'd need to wrap and label them all over again!'
Close up, the presents were so aggressively holiday-themed that they seemed on the point of erupting from sheer festiveness. Ibushi's box was wrapped in the paper that featured the unnatural-looking reindeer, while Kinshirou's had a hectic pattern of Christmas bells and candy canes that was busy enough to induce a vague sense of motion sickness in anyone who gazed at it for too long. Nonetheless, it was evident that the gifts had been wrapped with care: the wrapping paper was folded and taped into place as neatly as if it had been done at the store, and red-and-green bows made with real ribbon crowned each one. Tentatively, Kinshirou examined his present, trying not to look directly at the eye-searing pattern, and discovered a little label shaped like a holly leaf attached to the bow, with PRESIDENT (KIN-CHAN-SENPAI) printed on it in round, childish characters.
Confronted with the rationale for Yumoto's line of reasoning, words briefly failed him. 'An...efficient approach,' he finally said.
En gave a low chuckle. 'Rare praise from the president,' he commented, to no one in particular.
'Should we wait for Akoya?' Ibushi asked Yumoto, who still had one present in his hands.
'Oh, Akoya-senpai's not here yet?' Yumoto looked around for the first time. 'I thought he'd be coming with you.'
'He's probably finishing up the last edits to his speech,' Kinshirou said, glad for an excuse to tear his eyes away from the gift box. 'As the representative of the rising third-year class and the student council's president-elect, I'm sure he wants it to be perfect. I have stressed to him that giving the address is not an honour to be taken lightly.'
'Your speech was good last year, Kin-chan,' Atsushi said, though his voice sounded a little too cheerful to be completely genuine. 'Very...er, stirring.'
'Stirring?' En wasn't quite so free with the compliments. 'I'm pretty sure I remember overhearing one of the teachers say that it sounded like you would be putting us all under martial law.'
'En-chan -- ' Atsushi began warningly, and Ibushi gave both of them an distinctly unamused look, but Kinshirou didn't seem offended by En's words. If anything, the remark brought a wry expression to his face as he looked back down at the present in his hands.
'I was a much different person then,' he said simply. With one finger, he toyed with the label on his present, then looked up again. 'I suppose we should wait, though I imagine -- ah, never mind, there he is.' He leaned to one side, peering over the top of Yumoto's head, and held up a beckoning hand. 'Akoya! Over here!'
The other third-years turned to follow his gaze, and saw Akoya striding briskly across the school grounds towards them, apparently heedless of the two other people who were hurrying in his wake.
'Oh, and Ryuu and Io, too?' En said with some surprise as the three second-years approached them. 'I can't imagine that they all came together.'
'Stranger things have happened,' Ibushi mused, and this time the look that he and Kinshirou exchanged was one of quiet satisfaction.
By the time that Ryuu and Io had caught up with Akoya, their faces had brightened at the sight of all five of their friends together and waiting for them.
'Hi, guys,' Ryuu said, cheerily waggling his fingers. 'Ready to do this?'
'Good morning to all of you,' said Io, as cordial as ever. 'You have fine weather for the ceremony today.'
Akoya, fiddling with a strand of hair, seemed too preoccupied to give even the most basic of greetings to anyone. 'Shouldn't we be going inside already, President?' he said, somewhat peevishly, to Kinshirou. 'This wind is blowing the dust around, and I keep having to pick cherry blossom petals out of my hair, and -- '
'Akoya-senpai!' Yumoto bounded forward, and Akoya had just enough time to put up his hands to fend off Yumoto's unexpectedly physical greeting before Yumoto was waving the remaining wrapped box scant inches from his nose. 'Merry Christmas!'
'Merry...?' Akoya echoed, bewildered, but then Yumoto all but thrust the box into his hands and skipped back a few steps, looking expectantly between the student council members.
'Open them!' he said encouragingly, bouncing on his toes with the excitement of anticipation. 'You don't have to wait!'
'Just run with it,' En said to Akoya, and nodded to the box. 'We'll explain it all later.'
Akoya still looked mystified, especially when he noticed that the wrapping paper on his gift was printed with a riot of multicoloured Christmas trees, but when he saw Kinshirou and Ibushi start to remove the ribbons and open the paper on the boxes in their hands, he was quick to take his cue from them and follow suit.
As the student council members opened their gifts, trying not to tear the paper unnecessarily, Yumoto's enthusiasm continued to bubble like a hot spring. 'I hope you like them,' he said. 'I had some help picking them out.'
'Goura-san?' En said, though he sounded as if he already knew the answer.
Frowning slightly, Atsushi adjusted his glasses. 'I know you were excited about our own gift exchange, Yumoto, but why didn't you tell us about this? We would have helped you shop for them, or at least paid you back for it.'
'Well, I was going to have these gifts be from all of us, but -- ' Yumoto's attention was distracted by the rustle of paper: Kinshirou had removed his gift's outer wrappings to reveal a flat, rectangular box of solid white card stock. Ibushi's box, also white, was taller and more squarish than Kinshirou's, and Akoya's was somewhere in between the two. 'Go ahead and open them!' he said.
The student council members glanced at each other, then did as they were requested. Curiosity piqued, the Defense Club members all crowded in a little closer to get a better view of the final reveal.
Murmurs of quiet interest and approval greeted each gift as it was opened. Kinshirou's long flat box contained a new calligraphy brush and ink stick, both protected by sheets of delicate washi paper. Ibushi's box held an embroidered drawstring pouch, which he then tugged open to reveal a silvery metal tea caddy decorated with a painted spray of plum blossoms peeping out from beneath a soft layer of snow. And inside the larger gift box of Akoya's present was a smaller, more expensive-looking box that held a pink-and-gold container of what appeared to be hand cream from a well-known cosmetics company.
'That's the right kind, isn't it?' Yumoto asked hopefully, as Akoya turned the box over in his hands to look at the label. 'I thought it was the one I saw you using at the baths, but I wasn't completely sure....'
'This was a limited edition for Christmas this year.' Akoya sounded faintly awestruck, not quite able to believe what he was seeing. 'I'd even thought about ordering some and having it shipped overseas, but never got around to doing so.'
That was good enough for Yumoto, who turned to Ibushi next. 'The lady at the store said this was good tea,' he said, with a touch of confidence and pride in his choice. 'I hope you like it!'
Ibushi had opened the tea caddy's lid, and the fresh scent of the tea within sent a hint of a perfume of grass and citrus into the air. 'It's sencha with yuzu,' he said. He gave Yumoto a definitely pleased smile. 'Very seasonally appropriate. And it smells wonderful, Yumoto-kun.'
Nearly bursting with delight in his own success thus far, Yumoto looked over at Kinshirou. 'And I was hoping that you could use this to write letters to us, Kin-chan-senpai...but I suppose that's no good now, isn't it.' Some of the happiness faded from his face as he was reminded of his own forgetfulness.
Kinshirou closed the box -- and to everyone's surprise he reached out and rested a hand on Yumoto's shoulder, a gesture that was part comfort, part support. 'I can still put it to good use, Hakone-kun,' he said, in a voice more gentle than anyone except perhaps Atsushi had ever heard from him. 'Thank you for this, and for your thoughtfulness in purchasing these presents for us on everyone's behalf.' As he spoke, he looked up, his gaze sweeping across the other members of the Earth Defense Club. 'We could not have asked for better gifts.'
'Yes, thank you very much,' Ibushi said sincerely, at the same time that Akoya chimed in with a fervent, 'Thank you indeed.'
'You did a good job, Yumoto.'
The unexpected voice came from a few feet away from their group, breaking the moment and making all of them jump. Yumoto was the first to whirl around. 'An-chan!' he cried out, eyes lighting up at the sight of his older brother approaching them.
It was a bit strange to see Goura in anything other than his usual sweat-soaked working attire, but he cut a striking figure in his good suit and tie. His well-scrubbed, smiling face was shining with the exertion of having climbed the many steps from the Kurotama to the school. Kinshirou, alert as ever to the duties of his soon-to-be-vacated official position, stepped forward a pace to give Goura a proper welcoming bow.
'Good morning, Hakone-san,' he said respectfully. 'Thank you for your consideration in coming to our graduation today.'
Goura nodded back in cheerful greeting. 'Good morning, everyone. I'm looking forward to the ceremony -- I wouldn't have missed it for the world.' He noticed the box in Kinshirou's hands, and his smile widened when he put two and two together and figured out the most likely source of the gifts. 'Should we hang onto those presents for you until afterwards? Yumoto can put them back in the bag for the time being.'
'If you would be so kind,' Kinshirou said, sounding both grateful and relieved for the offer, as he folded the used wrapping paper around his box. Yumoto eagerly collected it and the other two gifts without further prompting, and slipped them all away neatly in the glossy red bag. 'And now the four of us really must be going. Akoya, you should come with us as well. If you will excuse us for now?'
'We'll see you inside!' Yumoto chirruped, waving broadly as the third-years and Akoya took their leave and headed for the assembly hall. He turned to Ryuu and Io, and tilted his head in confusion at the dubious looks they both were giving him. 'What's wrong?'
'Why exactly were you giving the student council a bunch of Christmas presents in March?' Ryuu said, folding his arms across his chest.
'And were we supposed to contribute to their purchase?' Io's eyes glazed over, as if he were already calculating the total cost in his head and attempting to split it five ways. 'It would be easier to divide it evenly if we had the receipts.'
Goura saved Yumoto from having to answer either question by taking the gift bag out of his hands -- and handing him a hairbrush in turn. 'You can explain it on the way in, Yumoto,' he said. 'The hall will be open soon, and we shouldn't keep everyone waiting. But first, you need to fix your hair and straighten out your uniform, all right?'
It wasn't until that moment that Yumoto noticed how his hurriedly donned uniform jacket was slipping off one arm, and though he couldn't see his own hair he winced a little as he ran his free hand through its fluffy tangles. 'All right!' he agreed.
As Yumoto set about taming his unruly hair, Ryuu looked up at Goura. 'We've got to sit with our class, Goura-san, but would you be okay with sticking with us until it's time to start?' He huffed out a breath. 'That idiot Gero's been acting like a hot mess all morning, and maybe he'll calm down some if we tell him that you'll let him recite his speech to you.'
'We've heard it four times already so far,' Io said darkly. 'I doubt if we can give him any more feedback that he will listen to.'
Goura grinned, clearly trying not to laugh at their predicament. 'I'd be happy to do so if you think it would help,' he said, swinging the bag of gifts over one shoulder as the four of them started to walk towards the hall. 'This is one special occasion that all of you should be able to enjoy together without worry.'
Both Io and Ryuu seemed to relax, the responsibility of looking after Akoya off their shoulders for the time being. Yumoto, in the meantime, had finally succeeded in getting his hair under control, and as he lowered the brush he glanced at Goura and suddenly started to giggle. 'With that bag of presents on your back, An-chan, you look just like Santa-san!' he declared.
Goura blinked, and this time he did let out a laugh of his own. 'Is that so?' he said. 'Well, now that I think about it, maybe it wouldn't be such a bad thing if Christmas came more than once a year.'