By the time Ryoma managed to make it out of the house, it was nearly nine. Somehow or other, his parents had managed to delay him for nearly three hours, reminding him of things he needed to do. First he had to help decorate the tree, then there was the birthday gifts, then his father needed to be saved from Karupin, who had NOT been happy to be presented with a muzzle (Ryoma swore that Karupin was ten times smarter than Nanjirou was anyway) and just when he had been about to leave, he remembered the gift he had to bring to the party sitting in his room.

Wrapping a gift for the exchange Kawamura was organizing was particularly trying. Somehow his usual coordination managed to desert him when faced with the shiny mylar paper and fancy ribbon his mother had bought. Ryoma, though, refused to admit defeat, and spent thirty minutes figuring out how to wrap the perfect present. It wasn't important, of course, but there was no way he'd ever be less than perfect at anything. It was a bit annoying, to be so obsessive-compulsive about things, but no one was ever going to get the better at him at anything.

He did manage to produce a present that could have been on display at a store, of course. If he had been less stubborn and asked his mother to wrap it for him, it would have saved him a heck a lot of time, but "Echizen Ryoma" and "stubborn" were synonyms to people who knew him.

It meant it was well after nine by the time he finally arrived at Fuji's house, and the party had already been in swing for over two hours. Every light in the rather large house seemed to be on, and he could hear the noise from the end of the walk. He wondered why the heck Tezuka hadn't shut them up yet. Briefly he considered turning around, but some people might consider it running away.

Of course, no one knew he had arrived, and if he said his family decided they wanted him home to celebrate..

He was about to march right back home when he heard a familiar, loathsome voice from behind him. "If it isn't Seigaku's brat," an amused voice said.

Ryoma did not cringe. He was merely trying to get his ears a bit more deeply into his scarf, because it was cold outside. "If it isn't the monkey king," he said, without turning his head to acknowledge Atobe Keigo's arrival. Drat, now that he'd been seen, he'd have to go inside.

Atobe came over to Ryoma's side, and Ryoma noticed that his entourage seemed to be a bit smaller than usual. Kabaji was at his shoulder, of course, and Ootori and Shishido were with him, but the rest of the Hyotei seemed to be missing. "Lose a few members?" Ryoma asked sarcastically.

Atobe merely cocked an eyebrow. "Everyone else should be here. Mukahi and Oshitari had to bring Jirou, and I think Hiyoshi probably left fifteen minutes before we did. You're running late, aren't you?"

Ryoma shrugged, wishing he was wearing his baseball cap so he could pull it down. Looking into Atobe's eyes was annoying. "Family," he said abruptly.

Atobe's smirk was as familiar as the sunset. He opened his mouth to say something that would probably make Ryoma wish that murder wasn't illegal, so Ryoma just headed straight for the house, deciding the probable chaos inside was better than dealing with the guaranteed egotism outside.

Atobe, of course, wasn't going to take being ignored. He shouldered up to Ryoma, staring down at the first year with irritation. "Didn't your senpai ever teach you any manners?" he asked.

Ryoma just glared.

"I think there's something wrong with Seigaku, if first years don't learn to respect their elders. Now, in Hyotei, we make sure everyone knows their proper place," Atobe continued as Kabaji opened the door for them.

It was absolute chaos inside as they stepped through. Kikumaru and Gakuto seemed to be having a flexibility contest in the middle of the room, with Oshitari watching with amusement and Oishi babbling something about how bodies weren't supposed to bend that way. Ryoma rathered agreed, especially after seeing Kikumaru manage to put his right foot behind his left shoulder even as he remained standing.

Still, that was relatively tame compared to seeing Kawamura trying to force- feed Ishida cookies. Somehow or other, Kawamura had managed to pin Fudoumine's strong man to the floor, and was straddling him, forcing gingerbread down his throat. "YOU EAT!" he bellowed in English.

Odd, Ryoma thought, that there was no tennis racquet in sight.

Stranger still was seeing Fuji's brother (the guy Ryoma had beat - he never could remember his name) hiding from. the guy Fuji had beat.. The one who was always sleeping. Hadn't he already beaten Fuji's brother? What was the point in talking to someone you had already defeated - heck, why was he conscious? However, the Hyotei player seemed wide awake and quite determined to throw himself at Fuji's brother, who seemed equally determined to find a good hiding place.

Something REALLY weird was going on here, Ryoma thought. That thought was confirmed when he saw what was going on in the corner to the right.

Momoshirou and Kamio were on a couch, their arms around each other's shoulders, bawling and proclaiming their year-long fight had merely been a misunderstanding, and that the other really wasn't that bad, and whoever messed with the other would know have to get through their new best friend. Most of their words were so slurred that it was clear they were quite drunk.

Crap. Who would be stupid enough to give a party of young teens alcohol? the first year tennis genius wondered. Glancing over, he saw Inui scribbling in his notebook, and swallowed. Oh, shit. he thought, realizing immediately that the data collector probably had something to do with it - and if Inui was involved, avoided it was going to be very difficult.

Atobe seemed to have drawn the same conclusion he did. "Interesting," he said.

"What's even more interesting is you two are standing under the mistletoe," Inui said.

Ryoma stared up, and sure enough, there it was. The diva looked about to protest, but Ryoma merely sighed. "Hurry up and get it over with," he told Atobe.

His lack of protest shocked everyone near enough to hear, but Atobe merely smirked. "You would be eager to kiss my glorious self, wouldn't you?"

"Not really. But if I make a big deal out of it, they'll make it worse," Ryoma said practically.

Tachibana, who had been near enough to overhear, disguised a laugh by coughing in his hand. "He does have a point, Atobe-san," he admitted. "It's not fun for Inui and Mizuki if he doesn't react."

"Point," Atobe admitted. He rolled his eyes and deposited a brief kiss on Ryoma's lips.

It was only through extreme force of will that Ryoma didn't shudder.

"Seventeen!" everyone in the room yelled.

"Huh?" Ryoma asked.

"We've been keeping count," Fuji said, appearing at their side. He motioned for Ryoma to follow him, and the first year did, a little bit nervously. "Inui put mistletoe up all over the place, and bets are on how many people are going to get caught. Be careful of that corner over there," he said, pointing to the corner closest to the kitchen, "if you get caught there, you have to French kiss."

"This is so childish."

"We're not much older than children." Fuji's smile seemed to be particularly wicked. "I have an early birthday gift." From somewhere behind his back, he pulled out a can on Ponta, handing it over like it was the crown jewels of England. "Happy birthday."

Ryoma blinked at the slightly cool can in his hand. "Thanks," he said, trying not to few gypped at his senpai's cheapness.

"Oh, I have something more, but this comes with a bit of advice. Don't drink the punch," Fuji said, his eyes opening a bit.

"Eighteen!"

Fuji and Ryoma turned around, just in time to see an extremely embarrassed Kaidoh squirm away from Kabaji, who had apparently had picked him up off his feet. The mamushi was hissing as he raced for the kitchen, smacking into various people, forcing Mizuki into Uchimura and Ryoma somehow wasn't surprised to find himself launched into Fuji's waiting arms.

"Nineteen!" people yelled as Mizuki kissed Uchimura with a resigned expression before turning waiting to see Ryoma get kissed for the second time in five minutes.

Fuji wrapped his arms around Ryoma's waist and leaned in closer. "Birthday kiss for the birthday boy," he said with contentment.

Ryoma sighed, and Fuji chose that moment to swoop in and take the kiss. Ryoma's eyes went wide as he felt Fuji's tongue probe his mouth. His body froze and Fuji kissed him for a good thirty seconds before releasing him.

"Fuji, that's not the lucky mistletoe," Inui said after a moment from across the room.

"Doesn't mean I can't kiss him the way I want to, does it?" Fuji asked, and his hand gently patted Ryoma's cheek. "Twenty!" he announced smugly since no one else seemed inclined to.

*

Mizuki was an observant person, and he quickly figured out someone had spiked the punch, especially after noticing how Fuji and Inui were avoiding it - however, he already had already drank two glasses, and his head was feeling slightly fuzzy. Not enough to be drunk, but he definitely had a good buzz going.

He tended to be amused by most things, but right now things were striking him as downright hysterical. Of course, the fact that the situation had rapidly deteriorated into utter insanity meant that he probably had a good reason to be.

"Twenty-eight!"

He turned his head in time to see Oishi and Eiji wind up under the special mistletoe again, and this time the kiss they were exchanging wasn't at all hesitant. The slight flush they each had in their cheeks meant they probably had been partaking of the punch, but the way Oishi's hand was wandering up the back of Kikumaru's shirt made Mizuki push his prediction of when they would officially "come out" up by a few months - till tomorrow. After this party, no one would believe it if they tried to claim they were "just friends."

How fun!

He blinked, checking his watch, and started to time the kiss. It'd be interesting to know how long the two could hold their breath, since they didn't seem experienced enough to know you weren't supposed to kiss THAT WAY.

He's just clocked two minutes when a loud "TWENTY NINE!" sounded from the other side of the room, and he had to roll his eyes. Yuuta had finally been cornered by Jiroh.

"Um, Jiroh-san. ah!"

Yuuta's squirming only seemed to excite Jiroh, who seemed to have "magic hands" as well as "magic volley" skills. No matter how Yuuta struggled, the volley specialist managed to cling.

It was especially amusing to Mizuki, since Yuuta held the record for being stuck under the mistletoe five times. Someone would think he was doing it intentionally. if they didn't realize his devious older brother was slyly manipulating the room so Yuuta kept getting cornered.

*

Inui was a bit amazed at all the chaos one bottle of gin had caused until he realized that the punch bowl had been refilled multiple times. Therefore, people either had very low alcohol tolerances or someone else was continuing to add liquor.

After seeing Fuji replace the punch bowl, he knew what the answer was. Fuji Syuusuke was being thoroughly amused by the whole situation, and chances were that he was the culprit. He adjusted his calculations when he saw a giggling Momoshirou very clumsily slip something else into the punch bowl. Luckily no one else noticed, but he winced inside. The cocktail was positively lethal.

So far, he estimated that only he, Fuji, Ryoma, Atobe and Tezuka were the only ones completely sober. Tezuka hadn't moved from the couch, grimly watching as the party descended into utter bedlam, and Atobe had apparently picked up on what was happening at once. Fuji had, for some reason, warned Ryoma was happening, and Inui and Fuji had known from the start.

That left nineteen drunk or nearly drunk teenage boys.

"Forty-two!"

Tachibana. and Akazawa?

His brain nearly broke as the two captains good naturedly kissed each other.

"Fuji, isn't it time for the gift exchange?" Inui asked after a moment, calling across the room to Fuji.

Fuji looked around. "They're drunk enough to be in good moods, but not too drunk to pass out. about right," he mused. "Everyone, come here!" he called. "Present time!"

Fitting over twenty people into the room was a squeeze, and Tezuka finally had to yield space on his couch to Fuji and Atobe (who both received glares). Fuji grabbed Ryoma and squeezed him protectively between him and their captain, and everyone else arranged themselves as Kawamura pulled out a large black trash bag.

"LISTEN UP, PEOPLE!" he yelled, and everyone immediately fell quiet. "Reach in, pull out a gift! Get your own, put it out. No opening until everyone had one, and we start with team captains!"

Kawamura was deliciously direct when drunk, Inui noted. It was like giving him a tennis racquet. To save on money, everyone had bought one generic gift and thrown it into a bag by the door, and now they were pulling them out. It divorced a bit of the uncertainty about gift buying, and saved a lot of money.

The bag was passed around quickly, and some people felt around a bit before pulling one out while others carelessly pulled them out. Inui noted that it took Mizuki the longest time while Tezuka dipped his hand in and pulled out what was on top as though it was going to bite him - and knowing what some of the players had probably bought, it wasn't a surprise.

When everyone finished, the four captains looked at each other and shrugged. Two were sober, and the other two had bright eyes from the punch. Akazawa wasn't that much of a surprise, but Tachibana was going to be interesting.

"On three?" Tachibana proposed.

"I prefer we do it by ourselves," Atobe said.

"You would," Akazawa said.

"Atobe, you count," Tezuka said decisively, settling the issue.

Atobe was a bit mollified by that. "One, two, three!"

The four tore their packages, though Tezuka used his fingernails to peel the tape away to avoid damaging the paper. Laughter rang through the room as people saw that Akazawa had somehow pulled out a leopard print thong.

His face flushed brilliantly as he tried to hide it, but it was too late. Everyone had seen it, and half the room was in hysterics. "Model it, buchou!" Yanagisawa called out.

"I doubt it would fit," Mukahi said from across the room from where he was leaning against Oshitari's knees. "It's a small."

Akazawa looked like he was about to lunge across the room to throttle Hyotei's famed acrobatic player, but Atobe merely laughed. "I hope my present is better." On finding a box of tampons, he turned to look at Mizuki with uncanny instinct. "Very funny."

"I figured that with all the mood swings that people who would be attending here had, it would probably go to someone who use it. I can't think of someone better suited to it," he said.

Atobe glanced at Kabaji. "Kabaji."

Kabaji rose to his feet. "Uso."

Mizuki cringed as the huge second year approached him. "No violence!"

Tezuka sighed, but opened his present next, and was relieved to find it only had a package of socks. "Thanks."

"How boring!" Kikumaru protested.

"It's useful," Tezuka said, and he was relieved that it wasn't any worse. He ignored the sight of Mizuki running around, and when Kabaji accidentally cornered Mizuki under the mistletoe, he shut his eyes.

"Forty-three!"

The others began to open their gifts. Some of them were just as sick and twisted, like the condoms (to which Oishi got no ending of teasing) and edible body paints (which actually seemed to satisfy Shishido for some reason), but most were more practical, unimaginative things like tennis balls, grip tape (provoking a long whine from Shinji), arcade coupons and CDs. However, when Momoshirou managed to unwrap his gift, the resulting hilarity made Inui's permanent records.

"Oh, this looks like a video!" he said with pleasure. "Akira, wanna watch it with me?" he asked his new best friend.

Echizen huffed, rolling his eyes.

"Sure thing, Momo-chan! What is it?" Kamio leaned heavily on

"It's. Gay Sex for Beginners?" Momoshirou squeaked as he dropped the video like it was a hot potato.

"I'm not watching that with you!"

"I didn't know what it was!" Momoshirou protested.

"Sure you didn't!" Kamio protested. He leaned forward and started to yell again, and before he knew it he and Momoshirou were locked in a lip lock.

"Where's the mistletoe?" Shinji asked in confusion. "I thought you had to kiss someone under the mistletoe? Of course, Kamio kissed me without the mistletoe, but that was last week, and."

*

Fuji sighed as over half of his guest lay sleeping on his floor. His parents had gone to a hotel for some "quality time" and his sister was with her boyfriend on a trip to Hokkaido, so that was one blessing. Seeing drunken tennis players passed out wouldn't do much with his social standing.

He mentally made a count of who had managed to survive the evening: himself, Atobe, Tezuka, Inui, Echizen, Kabaji, Mizuki, Ohtori and Shishido. It was kind of amusing that none of Fudoumine had managed to make it through the evening, but none of them had noticed the spiked punch until it was too late. It really was a pity about Yuuta, though. He probably should have warned his brother.

Such a pity.

Tezuka was still planted on the couch, which Echizen sitting right beside him, surveying the carnage with a resigned expression. Only Nomura, Sakurai and Kaidou had ended up throwing up, and Fuji had seen to it that Inui had cleaned up the mess. Inui was now preparing a special headache remedy which would be ready when everyone woke up in the morning.

Kabaji was helping to pick people up and store them in various places under Atobe's less-than gracious direction, but Atobe seemed to be more amused about the situation then anything. Atobe's family had gone to Europe for the holiday, and Fuji had offered to let him stay for the evening, which he actually seemed to appreciate.

"Of course, we need to get everyone else out of the way," Atobe said, still perfectly in control, and began ordering his underclassman to help him organize.

Fuji wasn't sure quite why Tezuka hadn't abandoned ship yet. Ohtori and Shishido had left about fifteen minutes before, muttering something about midnight mass. He hadn't realized it, but Ohtori's father was apparently Christian.

"Are we having fun yet?" he asked Atobe as Kabaji dragged Kikumaru and Oishi into the den.

"It was amusing," he said. "I assume you were responsible for Momoshirou's gift?"

Fuji gave him a smile. "Why would you say that?"

Atobe pointed his fingers at his eyes. "Because I can see," he said, smirking.

"Really? Do you see that?" Fuji asked, raising his eyes to the ceiling.

Mistletoe.

"Interesting."

"Isn't it?"

*

Tezuka glanced at his watch, and then at the boy beside him. Echizen Ryoma seemed completely unconcerned over how late it was getting, but it was nearing midnight. "Come, I'll walk you home," he said. "I don't think I want to be around here when everyone wakes up with their hangovers."

Ryoma nodded without a word, rising to his feet. He was careful to make sure that he followed Tezuka at a safe distance to avoid getting caught under more mistletoe.

The wind outside was cold and brisk, but Tezuka seemed completely unaffected as he set a steady pace. Ryoma walked quietly beside him, feeling relieved to get out of Fuji's madhouse. The party had been amusing, especially after being safely seated next to his captain and the tensai. But there was a strange stillness right now, and Tezuka's presence seemed to be reassuring and calming.

"Did you have a good birthday, Echizen?" Tezuka asked suddenly, his breath forming white clouds on the air.

"Sure," Ryoma said. It had been as any of his other birthdays had been - nearly overwhelmed with the Christmas festivities, with a few people remember that it was his birthday.

A slight smile tugged on Tezuka's lips. "We got you a group gift, which they wanted to give you separate. Unfortunately, I don't think they realized the punch was going to be spiked. I'll make Inui do laps for that one."

Ryoma almost made a remark how Tezuka wasn't captain anymore and couldn't do that, but somehow he didn't doubt Tezuka would have the power to make it happen. "Thanks."

Tezuka, came to a halt in the middle of the street to pull a small box wrapped in shiny yellow birthday paper out of his pocket and hand it over to Ryoma. Ryoma was thankful it wasn't dressed in Christmas paper - a small detail, but important. His face was carefully blank as dug into it, pulling it open.

"Woah," he said softly. "A ticket to Japan Open," he said. "That's not till next September."

Tezuka looked at the ticket Ryoma held. "We were able to get good seats. The entire team is planning on going then - we hope you'll have good news about another national championship, then."

Ryoma stared at the gift, realizing what it really symbolized. Continued friendship - a promise that even though the third years were graduating, the team would still remain in touch. "Thank you."

"You're welcome."

The midnight bells started to sound, and Ryoma looked up at the sky. "My birthday's over. It's Christmas," he said.

Tezuka noticed something completely different. Around them, the faintest hint of snow was beginning to drift down, a bare trace that only the truly observant would notice.

"It's snowing," Tezuka said softly, unable to believe it.

Ryoma's eyes went wide, and he threw his head back, hoping to feel the cool whiteness on his face. He had missed the snow, here in Japan. He hadn't dared hope for a white Christmas. "Snow!"

Perhaps it was the moment, perhaps it was Christmas magic, but Tezuka found himself leaning forward and kissing Ryoma, a soft brush of the lips that spoke far more of affection than the mistletoe game Inui had instigated at Fuji's house. Around them, the snow thickened, but Ryoma leaned into the embrace, for once feeling like he wasn't a stranger in a strange land.

Maybe he really had come home for Christmas.