The store fronts in New York City were welcoming the holiday season with open arms. Fake trees shone brilliantly with blinking colorful lights and toxic silver tinsel. Lifeless mannequins smiled their plastic smiles at the crowds that walked relentlessly by outside, displaying the latest holiday fashions: expensive furs, horrid chunky sweaters in every atrocious color under the weakly-shining sun, boots to keep pedicured feet warm. Mellow versions of Christmas songs droned in every store, every elevator, every subway tunnel so that there was no escape: you had to acknowledge the fact that Christmas was approaching.

Ran pulled his black three-quarter-length coat a bit more firmly around his gaunt frame and stepped across the street, striding through the black slush that remained after the first snow of the winter. A taxi honked at him and the cabbie let out a litany of curses, but Ran had long since grown familiar with the daily assault at his senses that the city offered up like a gift wrapped in blood-stained paper.

"Mister!"

Ran kept walking, ignoring whoever was trying to catch his attention.
"Hey, mister!"

Ran turned around, facing the homeless man huddled on the steps down to a subway

station.

"Spare some change, mister? Say, mister, ya even understand English?"

Ran vacillated, then scowled.

"Yes, I understand English." He'd lost his accent years ago. Did he still look like a foreigner? With his clothes by Dolce & Gabanna and his Prada boots, he looked like any other affluent resident of Manhattan.

"You just looked real exotic, 's all. Got any spare change?"

"I don't carry cash."

"...oh."

The grey-haired man sank back down into a huddle, losing interest. His tattered sweater didn't offer any protection from the elements. The violet-eyed man hesitated, then unbuttoned his thousand-dollar coat and draped it over the man's shoulders before resuming his walk.

"Hey, mister!"

Ran turned again. He wanted to get home already; the Armani dress shirt wasn't designed to retain body heat. A blast of hot wind from the tunnel ruffled the longer strands of red hair that framed his face. The homeless man smiled.

"Thanks, mister. Hey, Merry Christmas."

Ran just walked away.

His apartment was cold when he opened the door. The heating had been acting up all week, and for now it appeared that it only went on between 4 and 10 in the morning. Calling someone to complain was one of the many things on his list of things to do that kept getting pushed back by immediate responsibilities.

Ran shivered and turned on the lights, locking the door behind him and kicking off his boots by the door. Old habits died hard. He flipped on the answering machine as he entered the kitchen to turn on the coffee maker.

*Beeeeep.*

"Mr. Fujimiya, we here at Breck and Jones investing firm would like to cordially invite you to--" Ran deleted the message.

"Happy holidays, Mr. Fujimiya! Stockton Associates wishes you the warmest--" Delete again.

"Abyssinian, don't delete this message. We've been trying to get in--" Delete.

"Ran, it's Charlie. Don't forget that you have to be at the Embassy by eight tomorrow morning. I can count on you, right? Right. See ya." *Beeep.*

"Happy holi--!" Delete.

*Beep.*

"No new messages."

Ran sighed, running a hand shakily through his hair as the scent of hazelnut coffee started to fill the apartment. He drank a cup, cleaned the coffee maker, contemplated making himself dinner, decided against it.

The shower was uncomfortably hot but Ran scrubbed off the day's unimportant memories and wrapped himself in a thick black bathrobe. His bedroom was cold, dark, and uninviting, so he curled up in one corner of his plush couch and flipped on the TV. He fell asleep once more to the late edition of the news.

It was a long walk down to the embassy, but traffic in the city had long since angered the redhead enough that he was willing to part with any motorized means of transportation in favor of his own long legs. He got to his office on the fifth floor by 7:30, put a bulletproof vest on under his simple, clean-cut suit, tucked a .357 Magnum into the back of his pants so that it was hidden flush against the small of his back, ran his fingers through his hair to muss it up a bit, and finally walked down to Charlie's office. Charlie was actually Mr. Charles Natty, a slowly balding man in his early thirties who had a habit of wearing either a bad tie or a bad shirt, but miraculously never at the same time.

"Ah, good. You're early."

Charlie looked vaguely surprised. Ran just picked up a small jade Buddha that stood on the man's desk, traced it with his fingertips.

"I'm always early."

"...Yes, I suppose you are. Well, our client was even earlier."

Ran arched an eyebrow and set the statuette back down. He was used to waiting, sometimes several hours, for the clients to arrive.

Charlie specialized in matching bodyguards with important diplomatic clients. They would fly into New York City, get picked up by their bodyguard, perform whatever business they had, and get ushered back out. Standard fare. Charlie, however, was the only man in his field that hired only bodyguards who were at least bilingual. They served as both protection and interpreters. All of his clients were foreign, and it often made them much more comfortable to share a common language with the person guarding their overpriced asses.

Not to mention being very lucrative for Charlie.

"He called from the airport ten minutes ago, said his flight was early. He'll be waiting outside of Terminal B."

"Defining features?"

"None, really. He's about your age, somewhat shorter. Wears khakis. Your car is outside."

Traffic was as unpleasant as always. Ran maneuvered the unobtrusive silver Mercedes around several slower minivans filled with people, luggage, and presents. Flurries were starting to slowly drift out of the slate-gray sky and Ran flipped on the windshield wipers.

His client wasn't hard to pick out; he was the only person standing outside of Terminal B. Actually, he was the only person standing outside at all. His back was turned and Ran could see his shoulders hunched under a warm-looking blue ski jacket. Ran pulled the car up and stepped out, fixing his tie. He was dressed in cool greys today: a silvery-colored suit, darker silk dress shirt, and a satin tie pale enough to be nearly white. His earring was a simple amethyst stud.

Ran cleared his throat, shifting neatly to Japanese.

"Good morning. My name is Ran. If you have any luggage..."

His words trickled off as the man turned around, lips remaining parted in shock.

"Aya!"

Those wide, friendly brown eyes hadn't changed. Other things had, though. Ken's hair was slightly longer and strips of it had been bleached out by the sun to a dull gold color. His skin was more tan, almost bronze, and there was a single silver hoop high up in the cartilige of one ear. The smile was just as boyish as always, and Ken jogged the few paces between them to stand at a slight distance, rocking lightly on the balls of his feet. Sneakers. Some things never changed. Ran had the distinct feeling that if he was Yohji or Omi instead of himself, the brunette would have scooped him into a hug. As things stood, the younger man just stuffed his hands awkwardly in the pockets of his coat and grinned brightly.

"...hey..."

Eloquent as always. Ran just blinked.

"So when was the last time you were in Japan?"

Ken was inhaling a caramel mocha at a rather impressive pace. He inadvertantly got whipped cream on his nose, crossed his eyes trying to see it, blushed, and wiped it off with a tissue. Ran stirred his double espresso, of which he had yet to take a sip.

"Not since Weiss."

Ken nodded.

"Me neither. You kept in touch with anyone?"

Ran shook his head.

"I haven't, either. I sorta kept in touch with Yohji, but he actually ended up getting a modeling gig, so I guess we fell out of contact."

Ken chatted on amiably, as if there hadn't been years and thousands of miles between them. The brunette had tentatively stepped back into the soccer world and been promptly swept up to be the assistant coach of the Brazilian national team. That was the reason he was here: there was an international coaches' conference, both a general get-together to establish rules and bylaws, and a means of trying to make the international soccer federation more interesting for Americans. So it would be a lot of delegation, a lot of paperwork, and a lot of brainstorming.

"I kinda got dragged along," he muttered, mashing some of the whipped cream with a straw. "The head coach thought it would be good for me to mingle a bit with some of the other coaches. It's alright, I guess." He glanced up, smiling automatically.

"What've you been up to? I mean, I never saw you as the 'I'm gonna move to America' kinda guy."

Ran just shrugged. He took a slow sip of his espresso and said nothing. Ken frowned.

"Hey, come on. Are you just having a bad day, or are you always this silent? Back in the day you used to at least bark orders and stuff." He grinned, downing the rest of his mocha.

Ran motioned the waitress for their bill and started to stand up. Ken grabbed his wrist, tugging slightly.

"Aya, sit down. What the hell's your problem? Aren't you the least bit happy to see me?"

"My name is Ran." The redhead pulled his hand away but sat back down.

Ken huffed.

"Right. Ran. If you hate being in my presence that much, I won't waste your time. I don't really need a bodyguard, the Brazilians are just paranoid that I'd walk into a dark alley and get myself killed. Little do they know, ne?" His smile faded just a little. "Come on, Ay— Ran. I mean, it's Christmas time and my birthday's coming up and you're in New York! Can't you loosen up at least a little?"

Ran crossed his arms over his chest.

"No."

Ken buried his face in his hands with a groan. Looks like the redhead hadn't changed a damn bit. It was going to be a long night.