Title: Our First Noel

Authoress: Ladya C. Maxine

Rating: T

Summary: see chapter one

Warnings: see chapter one

Disclaimer: I do not own Beyblade or any of its characters. Any and all unrecognizable characters belong solely to me and are not to be touched. I am not making any money off of this and I write with the sole intent to entertain.

A/N: I'm pretty sure that there are some dumb typos in here but it's realy late and I just want to post the final chapter. And it's one looooong chapter!

Warning: strong language in this chapter.


"Ray."

Uh oh. I know that tone. It's Lee's serious tone. He isn't renown for his lightheartedness, but when he lowers his voice to a certain pitch, that sounds a lot like this one, there's no escaping him. He even has his arms crossed and his brows are knitting together. I would dump the blame on Kevin, as is second-nature amongst us, but he's one sea, several rice fields and a dozen or so mountains away. Figures, the one time that kid is needed and he's too far to point an accusing finger at. Which leaves me with my best friend, who has closed the door in a foreboding way. Might as well get this over with, and I have sneaking suspicion which 'it' he wants to discuss, and it isn't her majesty It, who Brooklyn must have spoiled rotten by now.

"Something wrong?" I ask innocently. Laying on my bed with Tiger fast asleep on my stomach I am rather comfortable but his staring is making me squirm.

"Spill it."

Did that once and Kai is now one pair of boots short.

"What are you talking about?"

He points wordlessly to the pile at the foot of my bed. If one looks close enough one can make it out to be one solid mass of presents, but excessive staring will result in permanent cornea damage so I would not advise it. Yes, I am talking about Mariah's presents. Some are furry, some are shiny, some are big, some are tiny. Max can quote every Dr. Seuss story, hence my advanced poetical skills. Tyson can burp the first three couplets from How The Grinch Stole Christmas. Guess just how much Kai appreciates that. Not much, since Tyson always does so on his (Kai's) birthday. I don't recall the good doctor's stories involving any kind of violence, but Tyson and Kai just add an amusing, somewhat treacherous, element to the poems.

Enough of that now. Lee is taking the initiative.

"You didn't even give those gifts a second glance after opening them."

The first glance was bad enough.

"They're just odds and ends. She gives me them every year for my birthday," I say. I have enough hair wraps to mummify all of Asia thanks to that girl; why should I behave any way other than selectively surprised after opening yet another hair product-themed gift from her this morning?

"She's so excited to be spending her first Christmas with you and she did her best to get you the things you wanted and all you had to say downstairs is 'Nice.'? You could have been a bit more enthusiastic and grateful."

Despite my comfy-cozy position, I sit up and place Tiger in my lap where he yawns before cuddling back down.

"What was I supposed to do? Gush and faint? Besides, the way she acted earlier towards Kai, my captain and friend, kinda put a damper on me. Kai does something genuinely nice in front of a whole group and she just shoots it down. You can't fault me for being affronted at that."

"Alright!" Lee snapped, flopping down on the floor onto his unmade bedroll. "Alright, I admit it, Mariah can be difficult, but you've known her for years and you were always okay with her. Now it's like you can't even be in the same room with her. One moment you can talk to her but the next thing she knows you're backing away and being all curt. You tell me what the problem is right now!"

"You don't want to know…" I sigh.

"Yes, I do! You've changed, Ray. You're not the guy I grew up with. It's like…It's like you're not my best friend anymore. We know everything about each other. For crying out loud, you even know about my mom knitting me underwear! I never doubted for one minute, in all of my life, on whether or not I could trust you. I used to think that you did the same."

I remain quiet for a long while. Lee is looking at me unwaveringly and without Hiro around to beat around the bush I cannot avoid him any longer. Slipping off my bed onto the floor, I lean back against the frame, pulling my knees up and putting Tiger on them, where he remains fast asleep. This cat has amazing balancing skills.

"Lee, I'm sorry. I can't explain what it is I'm sorry for exactly, but you're right. You're my best friend and…and there's I want nothing more than to tell you everything. But I'm afraid."

"Afraid?" He blinks and sits back. "Of what? Did you do something? Is that's why you're worried? What could be so bad that…" He gasps loudly and asks earnestly, "Did you kill Bryan? Is that why no one can find him? Did you hide the body?"

"Bryan can bring on genocide with a wet tea bag," I roll my eyes. "I'd need full military support, or Tala on his bitchiest of days, to get a scratch on him."

"So then what…?"

That familiar fearful fluttering in my stomach is beginning to build up. It's the same one I felt when I had confronted Kai in the spa with the intent on asking him The Question, only to end up having the most amazing, and shortest, make out session of my life. Too bad I can't use that same strategy of evasiveness here on Lee. Not that I'd want to, as I consider him my brother, but stunning him would make for an easy get away. An option had been to avoid them for the remainder of their stay. Not a foolproof plan since Lee is sharing my room with me and Mariah can hunt me down me like a heat seeking ballistic missile.

"Ray. we're buddies. Best pals. Whatever it is, I'm still be your friend. Even…Even if it has something to do with Mariah. I just want my pal back. Like the old days."

"You don't know what you're asking of me," I murmur.

"I'm asking for the honest truth. That's all I want. No excuses, no outbursts, no lies."

I consider it.

"…Promise me that you won't freak out."

"As long as it isn't another It I think I can handle it," he grins. "Come on. What's been bugging you all this time?"

"…"

"I solemnly swear, I won't get angry or upset with you."

"…"

"…"

"…Kai."

"Kai? As in, your captain Kai? Cold-hearted son of a bitch Russian Kai? Mr. I'm-far-superior-to-you-idiots Kai? The Lord of Antisocialism Kai? Kai from--"

"Yes, that Kai," I interrupt. "You promised not to get angry."

"At you," he reminds, face set. "Kai, on the other hand, is in for some major trouble. What has he done?"

I'd better get this out before Lee hunts Kai down. Kai's health is not in danger here; it's Lee's wellbeing I don't want to be held responsible for. I'm going to go for subtle hinting and hope that he catches my drift.

"…He turned me down."

"He's kicking you off the team? But you're the best! They can't go on without you! Who does he think he is?"

Lee, Lee, Lee. A prime display of why it's so hard to talk to him about anything these days. Give him a mouse and he'll make an elephant out of it. A very obese elephant who has experienced many growth spurts.

"It's my fault--"

"Don't take the blame for anything! The nerve…! When I find that striped tyrant I'll--"

"But Lee--"

"--We'll get him. I promise you that, Ray. I'm going to Mr. Dickenson and demand that he strips Kai of his rank! He's been bullying you guys for to long and--"

"Lee--!"

"--Mariah was right! She told me how Kai kept on hovering around you like some vulture; he's been making sure that you stay under his command. You should have told me this sooner--"

"Stop talking crap and let me finish!"

"I've heard enough," he growls, rising to his feet. "I'm calling Mr. Dickenson the moment I'm done with your 'captain'."

The moment Lee steps foot outside my door everything will go up in smokes. I've just managed to scrape together a decent solution. Lee shooting his mouth off to Kai and bringing the entire subject back up is one melee I'd rather not get caught up in. If I don't penetrate that thick skull of his now it'll be too late. Subtlety didn't work so I'm sorry my friend, but I'm going to have to give you the cold, hard truth.

"He doesn't love me!"

You know the braking sound effects you hear in movies? I can practically hear Lee's train of thought come to a similarly screeching halt. He stops so suddenly his shadow almost walks on without him. His back goes rigid. I can hear the choking sound he makes before the coughing sets in. He thumps his chest many times and only when he's gotten enough control of himself does he turn. Very slowly. He looks back at me over one shoulder. His mouth is open and moving but he is speechless and confused at the total randomness of my announcement.

I avert my eyes to my windows. The sky outside is grey. The thick overcast clouds promise snow before sunset, according to the weatherman. I wonder what the wise men are doing back home. Now that winter has set in there aren't any leaves to toss about so they use rocks. Since rocks fall faster than leaves they can only predict the weather two hours at a time. How did our race survive this long?

"What?"

Lee has finally plucked the word he needs from his jumbled thoughts.

"Kai doesn't love me," I repeat, still not meeting his eyes. "He doesn't want me…the same way I want him."

"Wha…Wha--What?"

Here we go, Ray. This will be the first time I'm going to say this out loud. Can I get some dramatic background orchestra music here?

"I'm gay, Lee."

Tiger awakens. Stretching cutely, he rolls off my lap and toddles about on his stumpy legs. Finding the end of my ponytail, he engages in a round of wrestling with it, flipping onto his back and sinking his teeth in the red end of the long wrap, kicking it and making growling noises, though being so young he sounds more like he's squeaking.

"Are you kidding me? Are you kidding me?"

"Told you you didn't want to know," I cross my arms.

Lee lowers himself weakly to the ground and rests his head in his hands, staring blindly at the floor. I've never seen him this overwhelmed and clueless at the same time. He doesn't know what to do with me now. Maybe he doesn't know what to do to me.

"You're gay."

"Yes."

"Meaning that you are attracted to…guys."

"Yes."

"Men."

"Yes."

"As in, the same sex."

"Do you want me to write it down and sign it for you?"

"…"

"…"

"How could you, Ray?"

"How could I what?"

"How could you do this to us?"

I look away once more, this time to the wall surrounding the window.

"Do you know what this means? Do you know what kind of consequences this will have for us…your family…the village…our lives? How could you let this happen? Where did you get such a stupid idea from?"

Whoa, wait one cotton picking minute here.

"Excuse me?" I snap around to meet his accusations head on. "How could I let this happen? I did not choose to be like this, Lee! It's not like I woke up one morning and had an irresistible urge to start scoping out other guys' asses!"

He looks like he's about to throw up there.

"You must have! People aren't born gay; they become gay!"

"Oh, will you get your head out of the stone age! I am not to blame here and you can't make me think otherwise! Besides, I don't have a problem with it so why should you?"

"Because obviously you're not thinking straight--"

Irony.

"--so I'm left to do it for you! Do you want your family to disown you? And what about your future, huh? If the villagers were to find out that their leader apparent is gay they'd have you exiled! Don't you care about any of that?"

Tiger is frightened by our escalating shouts and scurries back to me, hiding in the alcove between the floor and my bent knees.

"What do you think? You think that I'm looking forward to going to my parents and rubbing it in that I'm the one thing they hate the most? If I was so eager to offend anyone with who I am then I'd have already blurted it out, wouldn't I? I was too scared! I still am! How would you feel if you knew that you'd be hated by your friends and family for being something you had no control over! I've been living for years afraid that someone would find out! I've been living in shame! I was ashamed of myself, Lee! I was ashamed of myself! Do you know what it feels like to not want to be yourself? I couldn't even turn to anyone for support! You, my best friend, are acting like this when the one thing I need the most of you right now is your support! I've practically been on my own all this time! The first person I'd ever told before Kai was Hiro! How's that, Lee? Hiro was just an acquaintance at the time but he sat down and listened to me. He accepts me for who I am as a friend. Why can't you!"

"Because it's wrong, Ray! It goes against everything we've been taught; our way of life and our beliefs. Whether it's your own choice or not, it doesn't excuse you. Haven't you tried to do something about it? Try to suppress it or see a doctor? Maybe it can be cured."

"I'm a homosexual, not a disease!" I rage, getting to my feet and grabbing Tiger. "I should have known you'd be such a jerk about it! 'We're best friends, Ray', 'Nothing you say can upset me, Ray', 'Trust me, Ray'. You can take your half of our friendship and stick it up your ass!"

"You'd like that, you…you…fag!"

He doesn't see it coming. I hear the solid sound of knuckles meeting bone and with my martial arts practices we both know that it's gonna leave a hell of a mark. Lee's a tough guy, though. He doesn't cry or fall or cower. When I pull back he glares, tracing the already darkening skin around his eye.

"You even hit like a girl," he sneers.

"Go to hell."

"That's where people like you go, pal." He takes a step forward, getting in my face, my handiwork even more prominent at this close range. "I was willing to defend you for everything, but not this. For the honor of our ancestors I will not allow you to bring this…thing…upon us. I'm not going to say a word and you better follow my lead on that one. If you can't change your ways then you'd better cover them up perfectly. And as if you're not bad enough, you're lusting after Kai. Kai! I won't let my sister be hurt just so that you can chase behind that Soviet mongrel! Live a lie if you must, but your sick little secret will remain just that; a secret. Am I clear?"

"Merry fucking Christmas to you too," I spit without even blinking. "Now get out of my room."

"I'd rather sleep with swine. At least they wouldn't try to hump me at night!"

Snatching his duffel bag, he flips me off and marches out, slamming the door behind him so hard that the handle shakes. I give in to my immaturity and angrily throw something after him. It shatters against the door so it must have been something made from glass. Looked like Mariah's present number six, a kitsch tiger statue.

"I'd rather shag a pig than you!" I yell after him even though he's gone.

I must have been blind. Isn't it obvious that making my life a living hell runs in that family? I'm so mad right now I can do major damage to this place. It isn't my room, though, and Papa G wouldn't appreciate me trashing his house, so I think it's best if I go off somewhere to vent. Quickly throwing on something warm, aware that I am following in Max's fashion (miss)steps but too angry to care, I pick up Tiger, who I had put down on my bed before showering my floor with glass fragments. Stepping over them, I open and slam my door shut, as if the poor door hasn't gone through enough abuse. I've got to get out of the house but I can't take Tiger out into the cold so I head off to Hiro's bedroom. Pounding on the closed door, I wait impatiently as I hear quick shuffles and voices on the other side.

"Who is it?"

"Ray."

The door opens and Hiro's relieved face looks down at me, his hair loose and tousled. Over his shoulder I can see Brooklyn on the bed, face flushed as he makes himself decent. Obviously, I've interrupted some rare personal time between the two.

"Thought you were one of the others," Hiro explains. "You're fuming! What--"

"Take care of Tiger for a while."

"Where are you going?"

"Out."

"Why?"

"Lee."

They must have been engaged in some serious 'bonding' to have missed our shouts and cursing. Hiro gives me a sympathetic look while Brooklyn walks over and plucks Tiger from my trembling hands.

"We can talk about it, if you want," he offers.

"I just want some time alone. I'll be back in time for dinner."

"Are you sure?"

"I'm not sure about anything right now," I admit and without another word I turn to leave. I can't think of a spot where I can go to for some private soul searching but right now all I want is to get out of this place and away from all its inhabitants, be they friend or foe.

"Ray."

I look back. Hiro is leaning against the wall but Brooklyn has stepped out into the hall, Tiger purring peacefully in the nook of his arm. The prodigy gives me a hard look, which is exceptional since this guy is always soft-spoken, mild mannered, tender natured and so on. This certain look is leaning more towards his dark nature. Right now I do believe that my foul mood can kick his Lord of Darkness' ass with my fisted hands tied behind my back. I'm that pissed, but I'm not angry with Brooklyn so there's no need to prove my theory.

"Those who judge are the ones who are at fault. You are who you are. That's what matters, nothing else."

This time he doesn't contradict his wisdom with nature-themed prose. Hiro, surprisingly, does not give any additional advise. Brooklyn has spoken for the both of them, in a rare episode of down-to-earthiness. Heck, Kai would have eaten his own words if he was here. Brooklyn; prodigy, nature lover and one damn incomplete and confusing jigsaw puzzle/Rubik cube. Sweet guy.

"I'll keep that in mind."

He nods seriously and then does a 180 on me, smiling tenderly at Tiger and cuddling him. He steps back into the room. Hiro gives me a meaningful thumbs-up and follows him in, closing and this time locking the door behind them.

Now that Tiger is in good hands I make my way downstairs. I can hear a large portion of the group in the back, testing out various gifts. Daichi's scooter is apparently not so easy to control as he thought and Michael sounds like he's mastered his new skateboard. Those who aren't outside are in the kitchen, preparing for tonight's big Christmas dinner. The traditional dinner is always a major undertaking, but feeding twenty-five people is colossal. I was originally slated to help out, but I've got some anger management issues to deal with first, unless the others wouldn't mind eating out of the pots after I'm done smashing every plate, saucer and glass in the cabinets. Flipping Woody off as I pass, I storm through the front door, practically ripping my scarf and jacket off the rack.

Sardonic, isn't it? It's so quiet and lovely out here. A fresh layer of snow has fallen and since no one, other than myself, is out and about the ground is smooth, one massive, even plain of white. Trudging down the sidewalk, I stare dully at the decorated houses. Every five yards or so I can hear the happy shouts of kids playing with their new toys while the adults watch them, sharing jokes and laughing heartedly. They're now have New Year's to look forward to. I envy them.

I'm screwed. Lee won't tattle on me, but Buddha knows he's not going to make this any easier for me. He'll avoid me as much as possible but will be keeping a sharp eye on me to make sure that I do not hurt his precious sister. People are going to notice. The last time I was in the village Lee and I were like peanut butter and jelly, as Max would say. We've had so many sleepovers that there have been times when we'd wake up and not know in whose house we were. Guess sleepovers are through now. The moment we return to China I'm going to have to face questioning stares from everyone that will soon lead to simply questions. It's inevitable. I'll be forced to come out, which will only make things worse. I'd say that I'd be too afraid to leave my home, but I don't think I'll even have a home seeing as my family will most likely expel me from the premises. It's a lose-lose situation.

My wandering has brought me to the park so to seem. This should be a good place to sit and think. Not that there's much to think about that can help my mood. I'm in very dark thoughts. A very rare thing for me. I'm usually sarcastic and a bit ditzy (on my off days) but brooding is not a description I often label myself with. If you knew that your future is destined as an exiled and freak then you'd know what I'm on about.

"Ray."

Walking down the snow covered path, I am surprised to hear someone call my name. Well, call…more like a casual hailing, but it draws me out of my toxic bubble. Looking to my left I find crimson eyes watching me. Just what I need right now, though I don't know if I mean that sarcastically or not. I can't decide on it so I drift over to my captain, who is leaning against a tree. Another glimpse of red draws my eyes to Tala, who is sitting on a picnic bench within touching distance of Kai. In his hand is a Styrofoam cup that's steaming. Starbucks coffee. Kai has one too, holding it with his good hand while the other is comfortably folded across his chest, the solid cast being used as a temporary arm rest for his cup wielding hand. Looks like I've meandered upon one of their outings, which generally offers Tala a break from the noisiness of the dojo, where he has gradually begun to lose patience, which has never been that fortified to begin with. He's wearing his usual white coat with matching gloves and scarf, but instead of his white snow boots he now has on the new ones Kai got him for Christmas. They're black in color with stainless steel clasps. It looks good on him, though he reminds me of a scientist moping over another escaped specimen.

"Just thought I'd go for a walk," I tell Kai once I'm a couple of feet away from him, though he hasn't enquired as to why I'm here instead of back with the others.

"Why?"

There you go.

"Felt like it," I answer quickly before switching topic. "Thanks for the other gifts, by the way. I'm going to buy you at least two when shops open again. I feel really rotten for not having--"

"Do what you want," he waves off. Naturally, he doesn't physically wave it off since, despite his great physique, he just doesn't do the whole bodily exertion thing unless in a gym.

Yes, let us talk about what Kai got me. That should cheer me up enough to wipe this frown off my face. Needless to say, though lesser in quantity when compared to Mariah's teetering pile, it's the quality and thought that counts when one is talking about Kai's generosity. Tiger is still my very favorite, since the main key factor there was the thought. His other gifts fall more under the quality sector. And I mean quality. The only people who got more than me are Tala and Bryan, though the latter wasn't there to accept his presents. In any case, they both got a grand total of five top-of-the-line gifts from Mr. Generous here. I got three while Tyson, Max, Daichi, Kenny and Hillary got two each that matched their tastes perfectly, despite Kai's habit of going out of his way to not know anything about us, including passing up invitations to just hang out as well as listening to his Discman while the rest of us are sharing fond personal stories.

But back to what he got me. A brand new jacket that I'm actually afraid to wear in the streets lest someone mistakes me for millionaire and tries to mug me; it's so awesome that I'm terrified that I'd get my blood all over it. Oh, and the part of me being shot while being robbed is not a pleasant one either. It could have been just a jacket, but something in his eyes when I had opened it gave me the impression that it's connected to that time I had run out after him, in the dead of winter, without my jacket. On second thought, I'd happily take a bullet if it would mean that he'd be happy that I'm making good of his gift. But that's only the first. Next up came a heavy wrist cuff made out of solid silver with white gold tiger stripes. That one would get my head blasted off my neck if ever I went out with it, for sure. I'm keeping it stashed away, only to put on for special occasions. Rounding off this already pricy list is the beautiful ying-yang headband I am now wearing. It's so soft that I can barely feel it on my brow, but it's strong velvet. Yes, velvet.

The others got similar good presents from him. Kenny is still back in his room drooling over his new encyclopedia set as well as complete access to some computer beyblade software in BBA headquarters that is only meant for seasoned staff but since that sector falls under the financing of the Hiwatari clan Kai has rights to appoint other users. Hillary got a wrist cuff like me, though hers is more feminine and has charms hanging off it (evidence that she and I are the two people Kai likes the most) and, in a show of true genius, a four hundred dollar gift certificate so that she can pick out her own clothes. The sled, as it turns out, is for Max, as well as a whole new winter wardrobe that ensures that Max finally has some clothes that actually match. Though Daichi joined the team but a year ago, Kai got him the latest games from Xbox, which we all found strange until Daichi opened his other present that turned out to be his very own Xbox game console. Tyson, who grates on Kai's nerves more than anyone, got a paid life time subscription to four of his favorite comics and a pair of customized Adidas sneakers with his name on it. The love in the Bladebreakers camp this morning was near suffocating.

Besides getting presents from Kai (…and Mariah) I also got from Lee, the Bladebreakers and Hiro, though I think it was from both him and Brooklyn. Everyone saw the nice, rather suave, dark red pajama set I got from Hiro. What they didn't see, thanks to me, was the note that came with it reading: 'Save it for a special night. You never know…' His wink made me roll my eyes. I don't think that he's given up on Kai just yet. I admire his determination.

Nice memories. So, let's get back to the present. No pun intended. To remind you, I'm now standing in the park before Kai with Tala off to the side.

"What are you doing out here?" I ask, feeling a bit better already, though it's only temporary.

He simply tilts his head towards Tala, who is too entranced in watching the steam rise up from his drink to care much about anything. I give him a quizzical look, then turn back to Kai, silently telling him that I don't get it. Was it Tala's idea? Or did this have something to do with Tala? The wolf isn't in his most sinisterly cunning of moods so I doubt it that he made the bold decision to come out here and drag Kai with him. Alright then, so Kai's the one behind it. And as we all know by now, any time I come across an 'it' in my life it leaves me either confused, hurting or frustrated.

"Is it okay for him to be out in the cold for so long?" I worry. Ice Prince; Lord of the Frost; His Royal Icicle; Cold Bastard; all are descriptive names, but Tala's still only human. He just doesn't know that yet and no one has the balls to tell him. "Dying on Christmas day has got to be a taboo or something."

Kai takes a sip.

"What time is it?" he then asks. Seeing as the cast extends till his wrist he cannot wear his watch. He could just wear it on his right hand, but Kai's a creature of (bad)habit and if he can't do something the way he wants to do it then he won't do it at all.

"Quarter to three," I read off of mine.

He doesn't say it, but the gleam in his eyes tells all. Looks like this plan of his, the one I can only assume he has, unless he's purposefully trying to make his best friend catch hypothermia, is finally going to go into effect. So what is it? Will a delivery truck bring Tala his very own Earth destruction kit? Will someone be pushed off of a building to provide him with some entertainment? Oh shit, what if I've blindly walked into a trap? What if Kai wants to use me to bring that manic grin back to Tala's face? We both know how much his friend hates my guts when he isn't sulking over their missing team mate.

A foot crunches on the snow behind us…

Holy mackerel on chips! (Damn Kenny-slang) Have I developed psychic powers overnight?

Why, it is our long lost lunatic, Bryan, back from the abyss, as tall and massacring-prone as ever. He somehow snuck up on us, though Kai must have noticed him a lot sooner than me, and he's now watching us with bored expression, as if he doesn't have half of Japan out searching for him. I think that a national search was a futile attempt since he looks like he's just returned from a long distance trip. He's wearing a thick, ankle-length coat and has a duffle bag hanging over a shoulder. That is incriminating evidence because I know for a fact that his original bag, along with Tala's, is back in the dojo, meaning that he must have acquired this one during his lone ranger bout. He hasn't been gone for that long, but it's like I haven't seen him for years. Not that I wouldn't mind that…But wait, I should be happy. Not so much because my aggressor has returned, but this means that a particular redhead will go back to normal. I will no longer have to look at his broken child expression or contemplate hurting myself just to cheer him up. His friend's safe return on Christmas day will pull him out of his shell, right?

"Zhopa!"

Wow, that went a lot faster than expected. Talk about a miraculous recovery. Tala has already said and moved more in the past five seconds than he has done in the past three days. Getting to his feet, his eyes are slivers of jagged ice and his jaw is so tight that he must be grinding his teeth down to the gum. Everything about him exudes rage, contempt and pure hatred…sniff. It's so beautiful. I'm seriously getting emotional. Tala's back!

It's all coming back to the wolf, who is exhausting his extensive vocabulary. Not that I'd bet on that since all Russian words sound the same to me, particularly when spoken by Tala, who, when talking in his native language, has a distinct accent that makes his speech even less intelligible. Life has returned to normal now that he's all nasty again. I just didn't expect him to take it out on Bryan. He looked like he was about to throw himself before a snow plough two minutes ago. Bryan has returned at last, something that you'd think would have greatly pleased Tala, but the redhead is one 'zhopa' away from grabbing the pale teen and throwing him in front of a snow plough and then driving back and forth over him many times. Again, it's near magical seeing his old persona once more.

On a serious (and logical) note, though, how messed up is this? Not much by Russian standards apparently since neither Bryan nor Kai are taken back by their friend's vulgar vocal misdemeanor. Kai is just looking on with a patient expression and Bryan is meeting Tala's angered glare eye-to-eye with a strange expression. Strange as in I've never seen him look like that before, though I cannot put my finger on it as to what it means. He's so fixated on the redhead that he hasn't even noticed me, which will be the second time in two meetings that he's done so. Insulting! Am I invisible or something? He hasn't been able to petrify me for three days; he should be brimming with lovely ideas on how to inflict harm upon my body and mind. I just don't understand these people.

Tala rounds up his discontent with a hearty 'zhopa' and stomps off, purposefully shoving Bryan as he passes him. Ah, another rebirth: the falcon sneers a sneer I know too well. Snarling something at the retreating redhead, he follows him nonetheless, arguing his defense against his captain, who is 'zhopa'-ing all the while. Just before they are both out of view Bryan grabs the shorter teen by his shoulder. Tala nearly snaps the offending hand in two and stalks on. Bryan's reaction will remain a mystery (for now?) as they disappear around the bend of the high wall that runs around the entire park. Their voices are easily heard in the silent atmosphere but as they take their quarrelling further and further from us serenity/sanity returns.

And Kai's just looking very pleased. Was his plan to have his two friends kill each other? Brilliant. Traitorously sneaky, but brilliant. Nah, Kai wouldn't do something like that; if he wants someone dead then he'd do it himself.

"…Um, was that supposed to happen?"

"That's what always happens," Kai informs, pushing himself away from the trunk. Finishing his mocha-coca-toga (Ah, memories), he tosses the empty cup into a trash bin a few feet away but begins to calmly stroll off in the opposite direction. My 3 years of intensive Kaiology helps me to ascertain that he is open for friendly communication, so I tag along. I have nothing better to do. Not that I'm saying that I only hang around him when I'm bored, but I'll be less inclined to sit and mope when he's with me.

"Kai?"

"Hn."

"What exactly is a 'zhopa'?"

Seriously, I just have to know.

He smirks, almost fondly. Clearly, that word is deeply associated with the troublesome twosome.

"Asshole, basically."

Nice association. How good a friend must you be to get away with calling Bryan, who nearly gutted me with his knuckles when I called him a sore loser, an asshole? The term is used on a daily basis on the streets, both in insult or when joking with buds, but just stop and consider it. Asshole. Ass-hole. That's one very offensive nickname. And Bryan allows Tala to call him that in wide open spaces, where the redhead's voice can carry for miles? Friends forever. Or as long as they don't beat each other to an early grave.

"What's your problem?" Kai asks out of nowhere as we walk.

"I don't have a problem," I lie, stuffing my hands in my pants pocket.

He looks at me, long and hard.

"So you are the problem."

Isn't it just weird how he can be so good at judging other people when he doesn't give the rest of the population a second, or even first, glance? It must have something to do with him being friends with the newly reunited hell spawns, who are most likely still defiling the Christmas air with their profanity. If he has them figured out then the rest of the world must be like tracing paper to him.

"Just a spat between me and Lee," I reveal lithely, since he's still looking at me. "Nothing serious."

"You're lying."

Well, damn, Dr. Phil. Stop analyzing!

"Fine, I punched him, but it still isn't any of your concern."

"I didn't say it was. Just wanted to point it out."

"You're a peach."

He smirks and turns back to our path. I don't know what's going on in his head or if he's even given this subject any more thought but he doesn't lead me back to the dojo even when we leave the park, and I know that he's deliberately doing so since he knows I want to accompany him. Instead, we end up at the shopping center where I first encountered a sobbing Tala. It's now Russian tragedy-free. There isn't another person in sight and the doors leading to the indoor mall are locked shut so we just amble around the shops that form a circular outer court. I half-heartedly stare at the window displays at all the things that will soon be going on sale now that the Christmas rush is over, mentally making notes of items of interest that I'll be able to purchase with my remaining money. I sigh when I realize that the money in my wallet is probably the last I'll ever get from my parents.

"I'm going home," Kai says. We've walked through the entire circuit and are now looking back at all the ground we've covered.

"I think I'll stay here for a while. They're probably breaking the place down preparing dinner."

"I'm going back home to Russia," he elaborates.

Okay, we all know that he is, so if he considers this newsworthy then there must be some change in his plans, which were to stay until January 12.

"You are?" I ask with no great alarm. "There isn't much to do after New Years, so I guess that you have better things to do. When then? The second? Third?"

"Tonight."

Now is the time to sound the alarm.

"Tonight? So soon? Why?" I stop when I realize how pitiful I'm sounding and try to compose a more eloquent reaction. "I mean, that's too bad. For how long? We have to begin training for this year's world championship so--"

"I won't get in the way."

I know that tone and what it's implying. I don't like that tone and what it's implying.

"…You're leaving the team."

"I joined to train you guys. I've done what was asked of me so I'm moving on."

And this fits into my hopes of still leading a tolerable life how…?

"You should have told us earlier, Kai," I scold, allowing myself to disappointed voice.

"You all, especially Tyson, would have spent the entire holiday nagging me into staying. I've made up my mind. We're leaving after the dinner."

"We?"

He merely tilts his head in the direction of the park. Bryan and Tala. Yeah, that does actually make sense. There's no reason why they'd want to stay after Kai's left and no reason why the rest of us would want them here longer than is healthily beneficial. The amount of near-fatalities that have been resolved without lifelong bodily dysfunctions thanks to Kai would fall drastically if he took off and left the now even more vicious pair. Bryan has returned and I still don't know what's going on! I think that that's even more disturbing than what Kai has just told me. Well, maybe not, but it has easily earned runner-up. It still hasn't caught up with me that he's going. I must be in denial, or I'm just certain that he'll change his mind before desert.

"Even if you're leaving the team…You'll come visit us, right? Once a month or so?"

He doesn't answer.

"I don't understand…Why so sudden? I don't believe you about wanting to move on. You're hiding something, Kai. There's something else."

He's not meeting my eyes. He doesn't even appear to be listening to me. Arms crossed and face neutral, he's staring out before him. Scratch former comment; he is listening to me. His eyes narrowed at my last sentence, meaning that I'm correct. I can't believe it. What's he trying to get rid of? The team has reached international fame and nothing has changed between us so…Unless…No. No, it can't be…

"You're leaving because of me."

Finally, he looks up. I cannot tell if it's because I'm right or because I've brought that hated topic back up. Stuffing my hands deep in my pockets, I feel a threatening lump painfully forming in my throat all the same.

"It's because of the fact that I told you that…that…I have feelings for you."

"Something like that," he says.

I have given up his love with the intent of just being a friend. A team mate. And now even that has been taken away from me. I have nothing now. The moment he walks out the front door tonight he'll be gone for good. Out of my life, the life he saved yesterday. It was all just a dream, wasn't it? A school girl's dream of a perfect romance, watered down to a friends-forever theme relationship, now nothing but dust. I once believed that me and Kai were meant to be like some medieval fairy tale. Figures, childish dreams never amount to anything.

"I'm sorry, Kai," I say bravely, turning my back to him. "I didn't mean to make you this uncomfortable. I thought you were cool about it. I suppose the best thing is to put it all behind you. To want to forget about everything, including me."

"You'll understand it in the end," his voice replies behind me. "It will make sense.

"Believe me, there's nothing I'd rather do. I want to understand…and I want to be understood. Whatever happens, I want you to know that I will always love you. I'll stay away, but I can never stop thinking about you. Do you…"

I turn around to find an empty space. He's gone, having left only his footprints in the snow. Is this how he wants to do this? Walk away without another word? Without a last exchange between the two of us? It's sinking in now. Kai meant what he said. He's going to walk out of the dojo tonight and we'll never see or hear from him again. All because of me and my foolish feelings. And all I'm going to be able to do it watch him leave and hate myself even more.

What if Lee's right? Am I really that…unnatural?


"10 minutes, people! You've got 10 minutes!"

I hear footsteps hurrying to meet Hillary's command as people change their shirts or pants at the last minute or add on extra lipstick. Our activities director is keeping very close track of the time since we are to be special VIP guests at Nag-Nag's Christmas concert, which begins in two hours, meaning that we have to have eaten and be ready to move out by eight. Nag-Nag surprised us by insisting on staying here for the Christmas dinner rather than going ahead to the concert where a much more deluxe feast has already been arranged just to meet her strict diet. She has changed in the few days that she's been here. Not much, by normal standards, but she actually helped out in the kitchen, mainly by sprinkling the croutons on the salad; a major undertaking for a girl who thinks that ordering room service is the same as preparing her own meals. In any case, she has invited us all to come watch her. All of the girls and some of the guys (mainly her team mates and Kenny) had agreed, but somehow we're all going. Had we agreed in our sleep or something? So now Hillary's systematically counting down the minutes until the big show, despite us having reserved seats in the audience, front row.

"Yay! Food!"

Tyson…

"Yay! Desert!"

Max…

"Yay! No curfew tonight!"

Daichi…

"Yay! Ming Ming-sama!"

Kenny…

"Just shut up and get your butts down here!"

Hillary…

They're going to take the news hard. Kai leaving the team is not what they're expecting to get on this day. Daichi might not take the news so hard since he barely knows Kai, but the original Bladebreakers and Hillary, who once had a crush on him when they first met, see him as the center force of the team. Even Tyson will admit it if asked; he may be the headline maker, but when it comes to the core of our success it all comes back to Kai. We risked our lives to save him when he left us after our first year. The news of his second desertion was hard to swallow and Tyson had just barely managed to pull himself through it. We thought that this meant that team BBA is unbreakable, that we've overcome every obstacle thrown our way. At the height of our power, we're going to lose our source of power.

"8 minutes!"

"Is this freaking NASA or something?" Michael shouts from down the hall.

"I heard that! You now have only six minutes to come down, Michael Parker, or you're banned from dinner!"

"Hussy."

"I heard that one too! Five minutes!"

Rick laughs as he passes by my closed door at his friend's expense. I also hear two or three girls go by, all ready for the night. I don't move from where I'm sitting on the ledge of my window, dressed but in no hurry despite Hillary's drills. Mentally noting whose footsteps I hear going downstairs, as I am capable of identifying individual treads, I open my eyes when someone knocks on my door.

"Ray? Are you ready?"

"I'll be there in a minute, Hiro," I reply though I don't even twitch.

"That's all you have," he chuckles. "Hillary actually has a stopwatch." Someone approaches him, the peaceful intervals of the steps giving Brooklyn away even though he doesn't speak. "If you need time I can talk Hillary into cutting you some slack."

"I won't be long."

Picking up on my near lifeless attitude, Hiro backs off, taking Brooklyn with him though I hear the prodigy ask him if they shouldn't stay and talk to me. Hiro says something like giving me room to think, but the rest is lost to me as they walk out of my hearing range. Once they're gone an unconquerable silence follows. Everyone is now downstairs. Though Hiro has offered to cover for me I don't think that hanging around here in my room will make me feel any better or change anything so I slide to my feet, giving my clothes a few final tugs to make them fall right. Making sure that Tiger, who is fast asleep on the yellow baby blanket in the middle of me bed, is alright, I say a little prayer to Buddha, hoping that what Lee said isn't all true and that I can still consider myself a loyal follower.

Once I open my door I can hear the voices downstairs as chairs and silverware clatter while Hillary shouts out final orders before taking her seat. Hiro must have already put his suave to work since she isn't bellowing that I'm going to have to starve tonight. Something catches my attention as a door opens three doors down on the opposite side of the corridor. I quickly step back because it's the door to Kai's room, but he's already downstairs. I heard him pass by earlier. I know his footsteps like I know my mother's voice. This leaves the only two people I have not heard, or seen, for some time and they are not the type of folks I want to be caught with alone in a hallway. Glad that I turned off my lights, I peek through a narrow slit of space between my door and the frame.

At first nothing happens but then I see Bryan emerge, carrying three duffel bags; his two along with Tala's. He puts them down on the floor and returns to the room. A few seconds later he comes out again, this time wearing his fur-lined parka and talking over his shoulder at Tala, who also appears, pulling the door shut behind them, wearing his white coat. Didn't anyone tell them that the concert is after dinner? Squinting, though, I catch sight of what Tala is so engrossed in, namely checking the pieces of paper in his hands and from the logo on the top right corner I realize that they are plane tickets. Slipping away when no one is looking, huh? Then again, they don't consider informing others, including their gratuitous hosts, of their departure as important. At least they aren't arguing, though Tala is noticeably tense and Bryan's talking seems more like rambling, probably talking to himself as he checks their luggage.

"Fuck."

Whoa, an English word. Granted, a vulgar English word, but you don't hear many of those from either of these teens. That was Bryan, who is now glaring at the zipper of his jacket, which has become partially stuck as he had been closing it distractedly and now has some fur fibers in the teeth. It's back to Russian as he tugs at it. Tala looks up at what all the fuss is about and stares for a moment before he sighs and stuffs the tickets into his pocket and walks over. Impatiently batting Bryan's hands away, he effectively goes about freeing the problematic device.

Wait…something's weird here…Something gonna happen. I just know it…

Bryan looks on as his captain finally zips his jacket fully shut but just as Tala steps away he grabs the other…and kisses him!

Holy sh--!

Russia top bladers, two of the most feared competitors in the world, are lip locked fifteen feet away from me. Bryan, using his height and footing, pushes Tala's back up against the wall, one hand pinning his waist while the other holds a handful of fiery hair. Tala doesn't object or try to push the other off. Instead he pulls Bryan's head down lower to accommodate their height difference. Just watching them is making me feel hot and bothered. I feel like a dirty peeping tom as well, but I don't dare try to sneak away now. I'm stuck here until they leave, that is, if I am able to ever pull myself out of my shock. Bryan and Tala are kissing…Bryan, who punched Tala before leaving him in tears in a public bathroom to disappear for three days, is now working the other's neck and Tala, who has called him many things, 'zhopa' probably being the mildest, is panting, eyes half-lidded as he stares up at the ceiling.

Crap, I'm getting a nosebleed.

"Stop," Tala gasps when hands come into play, pushing lightly at Bryan's shoulder. He mutters something in Russian , trying to compose himself. "Later."

Bryan obeys but not without a last, deep kiss. I almost shiver at the possessiveness in his eyes and posture. He'd kill Tala's own shadow for being so close to the redhead if he could. I do believe that absence makes the heart grow fonder, but Bryan has never shown any signs of having a heart other than the fact that he's living. I've never seen anyone look so needful since…well, me. He looks disappointed that he has to behave but, as a final icing on this doped cake, Tala smiles. Smiles! S-M-I-L-E-S. Like Kai, he isn't a broad smiler, but the tell-tale curve of his lips reflects the contentment in his eyes, that aren't icy, for once.

Clearly, I've missed something, but I can't believe that I missed something like this. Maybe it was just a caught up in the moment thing. I can't believe it that these two have been like this all this time. They've always treated each other as friends. Neither acted any differently towards each other then they do to Kai. There were no mysterious disappearances during their first few days here or muffled sounds coming from behind closed doors, so where would they find time to…express themselves? Then again, they aren't particularly loud…And Kai had spent more time away from his room while we had thought the two Russians to be asleep…And there was that one time I bumped into Tala, for which he almost unscrewed my tongue. Hiro told me that they had gone out for a jog, but only now do I realize that Tala hadn't been wearing jogging attire when we met. In fact, he had been adjusting his usual turtleneck and pants, an action I mistook as necessary due to our collision…And the morning when we picked our Secret Santa, before Tyson had ruined it, Tala's expression, which I had found to be peaceful, was actually a lot similar to the one he has now. Content…pleased…complete. So that would mean that they could have been carrying on right under our very noses…but…

THIS IS TALA AND BRYAN!

Need I say more?

"…Kai?"

I blink at hearing his name, which Bryan has mentioned at the end of a Russian sentence. If I had walked in on the two of them now I wouldn't have been any wiser since they have their poker faces on once again, though Tala's shoulders are no longer so tense and Bryan is standing close to him, watching him as he searches through his travel bag. Tala shakes his head and answers in English. They seem to fluctuate between Russian and English on a whim.

"He'll meet us at the airport when he's done here."

Alas, that is the last of the Anglo-Saxon exchange as Tala collects their bags, gives Bryan his share of the load and motions the other to follow him, though Bryan doesn't need to be told twice as he's keeping within breathing distance of his (boy?)friend. Together they pass my door and I belatedly fear that they might notice it open and see me spying on them but Tala's once more busy with the tickets and Bryan is busy making sure that there's no more than a foot between them. They go by and begin to descend, speaking in soft Russian. Their heads disappear below the floor level and the moment they do it seems as if they disappear into thin air, their trained footsteps quickly fading from even my acute hearing. I'm left staring at the hall between where they first made their appearance out of Kai's room to the stairs where they've made their get-away.

I'm terribly confused and even more curious of what I have just witnessed, but at the same time I feel…relief? Not because they're gone, but because I think that I now understand them a bit better. It's just a bit, practically microscopic, and I could just be misinterpreting things, but all I know is that I saw Tala finally smile. Tala, who I spent the first half of his visit hating and the second half pitying, is happy. He may not show it like the rest of us, instead opting to guard it selfishly, but I know what I saw. Whatever their relationship may hold, he's happy with it. Remembering the smile on the team captain's face, I can't resist smiling as well. One of my two wishes for Christmas was that Tala would be alright. I'm glad that that wish has come through. I don't know if I'll ever see them again since Kai is leaving, but I'm sure that they'll manage.

"Ray! If you don't come down here then I'm coming up for you!" Hillary, who has just missed the Russians on their way out, shouts up.

Should I tell them that the two are gone? It will come as a shock since no one even knows that Bryan has returned. I was in my room for the most part of the afternoon, but I would have heard something akin to surprised shouts had the falcon been spotted. He and Tala must have snuck in at some point when no one had been around.

"Ray-Ray!" Mariah joins in, despite Hillary ordering her to return to the table.

My own destiny plows its way through my thoughts and I sigh, getting to my feet and exiting my sanctuary. I can see the glowing orb that is Mariah's shocking-pink glittering dress waiting for me at the end of the stairs. Is she wearing a push-up bra? Just to make sure that I do not somehow manage to overlook her ample chest cavity, she puts her hands behind her back teasingly as I descend.

"I made you your favorite beef steak," she announces proudly, grabbing my hand and tugging me down the remaining two steps. "You're going to love it. And you know what they say; kiss the chef!"

As she tugs me along I realize, since she's not rocking herself in a corner, that Bryan hasn't given her the supposed Secret Santa present. Either he never bought one to begin with, or he's left it behind. What about Garland's present for him? Kai will probably take it with him since, though they've left earlier, he did say that they were on the same flight so will be able to give Bryan the gift then…when they're on the plane…flying to Russia…never to return…

"--and then I added extra onions and garlic as well as grandmother's secret recipe. If you like it then I'll make sure to cook it for every week once we get back. A working family has to keep up his strength." Mariah is still going on about this dish of hers.

Side note: I love chicken, not beef. I can't stand beef, actually. Don't know where she came up with the idea that I'm a burger lover.

And yet, here I am, ten minutes after Hillary's deadline with said dictatress frowning deeply at me for having kept everyone waiting. I bow my head slightly in apology though apart from Hillary no one else is the least bit annoyed at my tardiness, though Tyson is doing a good impression of a starving orphan. All eyes are on the large array of dishes and platters that are situated between us in the middle of the long table. Amongst the porcelain are silver candleholders or other table ornaments. I'm impressed. With all the chaos and crashing sounds earlier I had sooner expected the entire kitchen to catch on fire but instead it, and those in charge, have produced a fine meal. 'Fine', if you skip over the partially burnt pieces of what I can only hope is food sitting right before me. I have a sinking feeling as to what it is; Mariah is looking so proud at it she might get down on one knee and ask it for it's crust in marriage. Her rendition of a steak, I presume.

Hillary announces prayer time, as if poor Tyson and Daichi aren't hanging over their plates in hunger, and orders everyone to pray along as she cites an entire page she has written beforehand for the occasion. Fearful of what she will do to them if she catches them with their eyes open, everyone complies, hands clasped together and eyes tightly shut. I am about to do so too but not even two sentence into the prayer a thought strikes me and making sure that Hillary can't see me, I sneak a peek around the table and easily find the one I am looking for. The one who walked out on me this afternoon and who is going to walk out on me tonight for good.

Eyes calmly closed and hands together, his head hanging slightly, Kai seems to be meditating instead of listening. He's sitting further away on my right near the end of the table next to Bruce. I can't make out why he choose to sit there, as Hillary didn't appoint any seats to us this time, but when I see the new faces close to him, all praying, I accept that his seating choice is for convenient sake. He's wearing a dark green sweater and black pants, and it looks like he's decided to start wearing that small silver hoop in one ear again. Another conspicuous detail is that his face paint is missing. He always looks so different without it, no matter how many times I see him like this. I spend the rest of the prayer staring at him and only when he opens his eyes do I realize that Hillary's sermon has come to an end.

"Can we eat now?" Tyson begs, a bit pale. "Please?"

Finally showing her humane side, Hillary nods and we reach for the food.


"What did you think, Ray-Ray?"

Prodding heartlessly at my leftover potatoes, I shrug.

"You shouldn't eat with your elbows on the table," she mutters for the eight time, poking me with her knife. "Anyway, I made the potatoes myself. What about the steak? Was it good? You haven't commented on it yet. Did it need more salt? Monica was supposed to add salt but I don't think she put enough."

She probably didn't mean to purposefully let everyone hear that, but she isn't one who stops to consider lowering her voice when talking about others. Even Tala does that…sometimes. Further down the table Monica looks guiltily, giving Mariah an apologetic smile but she doesn't see it. Instead, despite that the meal is coming to an end, she snatches another burn piece of beef, drops it on my plate and proceeds to glaze it with salt.

"It's okay," I say hurriedly, pushing away the chunk of cow as I feel my stomach turn. "The food was great." And seeing that your 'steak' doesn't legally qualify as food I can say that honestly.

"You heard that, Lee? He liked it!" she shouts down the table eagerly. "Ray-Ray said that he hasn't eaten anything this good in a long time."

"Did he? That's cool," Lee, who has taken as far a seat away from me as possible, replies around a mouthful of turkey. He's a slow eater. "Every man should appreciate a good woman when he sees one."

I glare, gripping the handle of my knife. He dismisses me and continues talking to Garland, who is being polite by carrying on the conversation though the way he keeps looking between the two of us proves what I have been fearing. Our blow-out happened no more than six hours ago and already people are beginning to notice something, especially Lee's ever darkening eye, which he says he acquired by waking into a door. Dinner is over and so far every single diner has given the two of us a quizzical glance a good number of times. It's like waiting for the catastrophic eruption; I can hear the rumbling, and am helpless to do anything to stop it. Nor can I think up a plan to soften the blow once it hits.

"It's all very lovely. I'm impressed you managed to prepare everything all by yourselves," an adult female voice says down the table on my right.

"Thanks, mom. Dad, watcha think?" Max asks, staring with big eyes like a puppy awaiting praise.

"Mh-hm," Mr. Tate nods, happily eating his mushroom sauce covered string beans, which has to be his fourth or fifth helping. "Good."

Max's parents are here, in case you haven't noticed. Judy arrived this morning and Max had gone with his dad to pick her up from the airport before bringing her to their shop to let her catch a quick nap and freshen up. Both adults were met with warm welcomes, especially from Papa G since the girls had been making a mess in the kitchen and he had hoped that an older, wiser woman would be able to bring everything back under control. Judy, who may be a scientist but will always be a mom, accepted his proposal and had quickly disciplined the kitchen crew. For someone who lives mainly off of cafeteria food back in the U.S. she does know her way around when it comes to cooking. Hillary and Emily would have disintegrated the turkey had she not stepped in and reset the temperature on the oven. Seated with Bruce, Papa G and Hiro, Max's parents aren't the only extra unexpected guest. Mr. Dickenson walked in minutes after we had started eating, shaking snow off of his bowler hat and laughing merrily at our stunned expressions. He's still caught up handling the extensive damage done to Japan during Tyson and Brooklyn's last battle so we haven't heard from him in weeks. It's good to have the founder of the Bladebreakers here with us. He brought us all together and having him sitting around the festively decorated table with us gives me the impression that we're as strong as we've been for the past three years.

I'm deluding myself. The others commented on his presence and it was Tyson who said that line about unity. The first thing I noticed upon Mr. D's arrival was the silent but knowing exchange he had with Kai, who, as I mentioned earlier, is sitting next to him at the end of the table. And it makes sense. He didn't give us time to let it sink in, but Kai, despite his past choices, isn't going to leave us for good without telling it to our faces, unlike Tala and Bryan. Not this time. He still thinks that Tymachi are a bunch of idiots, but they have earned some amount of respect from him. They proved themselves to him; he owes them this much. It also kinda explains why Mr. D suddenly dropped in. As chairman he doubtlessly knows already and will be the one to officially make Kai's departure known. It's still not getting in; Kai's leaving, but I cannot accept it. I still hope that my second wish will come through.

"I think that this is the best meal I've ever cooked," Nag Nag says, already decked in her first concert outfit; a sleek red dress with matching boots and a Santa Claus hat.

"Only, you've never cooked anything before," Garland points out.

"It's still the best," she insists. "I am going to rock the stadium tonight! Mr. Dickenson, are you coming to watch me perform too? Everyone's invited."

"I had plans for tonight, but I'm sure that I can squeeze in an hour at your concert," he smiles, wiping his bushy mustache with a paper napkin. His merry demeanor sobers up, though, and he stands up, effectively getting everyone's attention. "As is the custom, I would like to make toast. A long toast, but one that has much to say."

No one objects and we're all politely waiting for him to start though I can feel my stomach begin to churn.

"I regret that I was unable to be here sooner, but this feast has been one of the best I've ever been to, and believe me, I have been to many. Seeing you all, former rival teams and bladers, spending time together instead of with your families on Christmas day has made a profound impact on me. I am proud of you all. Not just for the meal, but for your spirits. Your commitment. Your love for beyblade, and also for life. I see before me the next generation of, not just bladers, but mankind. I have been in the business for decades and there has always been a group or two who linger in my fondest memories and I can assure you that this one, even though we are missing a number of people, has joined them. And so, I'd like to make my first toast to you, bladers. May you carry on the soul of the sport to your children and grandchildren, even after you put away your blades for good."

"Here, here," we raise our glasses and take a sip. Michael empties his and is denied more beer by Emily, for which he sulks.

"I am the chairman of the BBA, but one of my greatest achievements was forming our own very first team, the Bladebreakers. Many of my colleagues feared that it wouldn't work; that you were too different in culture and mind to function together, let alone win any tournaments. They have asked me to bid you their deepest apologies. Team BBA has carved out a name for themselves, winning three consecutive world titles as well as portraying the beauty of fair competition. I chose each and every one of you for a specific reason. Tyson, I knew from the moment I saw you at the regional championship that you embodied the spirit of thousands of other young bladers. You are proof that anything can be done when one puts their mind to their task."

"The irony," Hiro snorts, getting many agreeing smiles and giggles.

"Hey!"

"Max," Mr. D goes on, "you're optimistic beat and encouragement led the team through many battles, regardless of how grim the situation. You also proved that the best offense is a good defense. You also, with the help of your parents, provided the team with state-of-the-art equipment and helped with the design and precision of everyone's blades. Daichi…"

The short redhead looks surprised to be mentioned, since he only joined us a year ago.

"Size doesn't matter. Many made the mistake of underestimating your power because of your age and stature, but you made your critics eat their words with your hidden strength and, dare I admit it, stubbornness, much like Tyson. You were a late comer, but you quickly made yourself know in the beyblading world. Good work."

Daichi puffs up his chest, rubbing it in with a cheesy grin towards Tyson, who pretends to puke.

"Ray, you were the only person at the time who knew my exact plans. I remember that it took me some persuasion, as well as flying you in from China, to convince you to join the team, but you wanted to be a part of this team the moment you saw how these teenagers enjoyed the thrill of the sport, a passion you yourself embody. Your contribution to the peace within the Bladebreakers, as well as a strong forerunner and unique blader, has been praised many times in the BBA headquarters."

Wow, I never knew that I've done so much for this team. His words aren't entirely true, though. The part about me joining? Yeah, my main reason for becoming a Bladebreaker was that I wanted to have a certain sexy Russian as a captain. Had Mr. D not already inform me that he planned to have Kai as a part of the team I'd have hopped on the next flight home since I didn't really see much hope in the others. But for the rest this little speech is very motivating. Still, I have an inkling to where this is all leading up to. Only one Bladebreaker left…

"And, of course, every ship, and team, needs a captain. With the board committee already doubting the success of our dream team, I was able to convince them the moment I made known that I wished to recruit Kai as team captain. We all know that it has been a roller coaster at times but when it was all said and done the Bladebreakers emerged victorious thanks to not only the power and skills of you bladers, but the road you had to take to perfect your power. A road that Kai lead you down. Power without control is nothing short of disaster so I am extremely proud, Kai, of your leadership that has taught the teens under your command how to use their might to the fullest in a honorable way."

Kai nods mutely, slightly raising his glass along with Mr. D. Those red eyes are dark. It's time, isn't it?

"Which is why, as chairman of the BBA, it brings me great regret to inform you, the Bladebreakers, as well as your guests, that Kai has decided to step down as team captain and will be leaving the team as of now."

At once everyone starts talking, most surprised while others are staring dumbly at the bluenette. Even the adults are taken off guard, meaning that Kai and Mr. D had made sure to keep everything under wrap until the time was right. Hiro and Brooklyn turn to me immediately, the former having realized that this is the source of my restrained manners this evening, the latter looking compassionately.

"Leaving? For how long?" Tyson stutters.

"For good," Kai finally says, facing us.

"But why? Is it because of your arm? Is it a serious injury?" Hillary asks, on the near brink of tears. She may, and does, boss us around all the time, but I suppose she does care for us, in her own violent way. The bracelet Kai gave her jangles softly as she brings her hand to wipe her eyes.

"I've decided that I have other things I need to focus on now," Kai says, addressing us all in a voice that says that he isn't going to repeat himself so we'd better listen closely. "There isn't anything else I can do here; the team has succeeded and you have all become professional bladers. You don't need me any more as your captain."

Tyson, Max and Daichi share humbled stares. Kai has never openly commended them on their blading.

"So when are you going?" Max asks.

"And are you coming back to visit?" Tyson adds, pleadingly.

"I'm going back to Russia tonight."

They gasp at the sudden departure.

"And I do not plan to return for some time, if ever."

Despite his and my expectations, Tyson does not fly off the handle and forbid him to leave. He senses that Kai's leaving because he wants to. It isn't a matter of him switching teams or abandoning us midway through a tournament. He has made his point; as a teacher he has taught us all we need to know. But, we still want him as our friend. We still want him with us. The table falls into silence. Our teammates are trying to process it all while the others look amongst each other, puzzled by the unanticipated turn of events.

"You have done well."

Brooklyn stands up from next to Garland. All harmonious quietude is pushed back to reveal the Brooklyn we only ever see in the ring; strong-willed and to-the-point. He's standing tall but he bows his head.

"In all my years as a blader, as a person, I have never encountered another who gave me an actual challenge. I tasted my first defeat at your hands, which opened my eyes and showed me that blading is not just a game. You showed me the passion and effort that it takes to be a true blader. No matter how hard I tried I could not keep you down; you kept pushing back. Power is a necessity, but spirit is even greater, and you possess more spirit in this sport than anyone else. I, and millions of others, will not forget your name and you will go down into history as an undying legend, just as your phoenix. You have found eternal life in the world of beyblade; may you find equal success in the rest of your life. Despite our past battles, despite our still unstable relationship, I wish only to tell you that I am honored to have met and battled you, Kai Hiwatari. May your fire never burn out."

The adults begin applauding and we are soon to join in, loudly approving of what we hope is Brooklyn's reconciliation with Kai, who is watching him intently. I fear that he's going to brush off the prodigy's honest attempt but he doesn't. He nods and raises his glass in a silent pact, returning the honor. Brooklyn's eyes light up.

"Thank you, Kai."

"Splendid, truly splendid," Mr. D says, getting to his feet once more. "It is a terrible thing to rush a moment like this, but notice was short and I do believe that you have a concert to get to while Kai has a plane to catch."

Hillary, wiping her eyes, gasps and grabs her planner to check the time table.

"Oh my god! We have less than an hour before opening curtain!"

"We've got the star right here," Miguel says, pointing to Ming Ming. "They can't start the show without her."

Nonetheless, Hillary begins drawing us to our feet. Seeing as they won't get another chance to do so, people begin to crowd around Kai to quickly wish him goodbye and all the best. Tyson's bawling as he hugs the bluenette, who gives him an exasperated look but returns the hug with his one good hand. Kenny is wiping his tears with his tie. Watching from a distance, I'm tempted to go over and hug Kai my final farewell but as I take a step forward a hand grabs my shoulder and pulls me back.

"Don't even think about it," Lee growls, letting me go quickly as if I may infect him. "This is perfect. With him out of the picture you'll be able to clear your mind. He's what brought this thing on to begin with."

"Leave me alone," I hiss and march past him though I hear him following me. "I'm serious, Lee."

"Stop harboring those feelings!" he demands as we push our way out, getting a few surprised looks. Someone calls my name but neither of us notice. Once in the hall he grabs me again and I distinctively remember seeing Bryan do the same to Tala days ago. "Just keep it up for another hour and it will all go away! You're going to be normal again, why fight it?"

"Go away, Lee."

"I am giving you a second chance to make things right."

"Things were right before you guys came into the picture."

"Don't go laying blames on Mariah!"

"It isn't my fault either!"

"Of course it is! No one told you to be this!"

"Can't I make my own choices in life? I am old enough to know what's good for me! There is nothing wrong with who I am! If you can't deal with that then go home!"

"And what excuse are you going to tell the rest? Huh? What are you going to say to your parents and the elders and my grandfather? You can't hide it forever!"

"I'm not hiding anything!"

"Then go ahead, tough guy! Go on! Tell the entire world that you're gay!"

A loud gasp makes us both spin to find an entire sea of wide eyes and opened mouths. We have chosen to argue too close to the dinning hall and now every single one of them are staring at us, me in particular, with too many emotions for me to discern. Some are just aghast, others are looking nervous, a couple are not very pleased and a few more are still trying to determine if they heard right. Hiro and Brooklyn are the only ones who aren't looking at me outrageously but from their expressions I know that we're thinking the same thing: Not good. Kai is nowhere in sight. A choking sound from the front of the group brings me back to find Mariah with a hand over her mouth, shaking her head. She was the one who had gasped.

"I…" I hesitate.

"The hell?" Michael, who is eyeing me critically. "Are you really…?"

I swallow and nod. Several more people gasp, now sure that they'd heard correctly. Some of the guys are noticeably avoiding my eyes in either disgust or discomfort while the girls are crowding around Mariah, whose eyes are beginning to water.

"Mariah," Lee sighs, moving forward to comfort her but she raises her head.

"You…You…" she hiccups.

"How could you do this to her, Ray?" Emily demands.

"Why didn't you tell her the truth?" Mathilda says softly in a betrayed voice.

"All this time, she thought you loved her…" Monica adds, unable to chose sides.

"I wanted to tell but…I was afraid that you'd…"

"You're disgusting."

I stop in my attempted apology. Mariah is staring at me balefully

"You're disgusting!" she shouts again, stamping her feet. "Is this how you treat me? After more then a decade, this is how you return my love? By humiliating me in front of everyone! You give me fake smiles and return my kisses when all the time you were imagining me as some other guy! You sick freak! People like you should be wiped off of the face of the earth! Of all the revolting, noxious, low lives, you had to worm your way into my heart only to deceive me! You are a fucking faggot!"

"Alright, people, let's calm down," Bruce tries to intervene, having heard enough. "I'm sure Ray didn't mean any harm and that he tried to protect you from any pain, Mariah, and regardless of which, such language will not be tolerated in--"

"He's a faggot! His parents are going to be greatly shamed and he doesn't care! My parents are going to greatly shamed! I've been dating a homo all these years! I've kissed a gay man! Have you any idea how this is going to look back in the village? I will never be able to live it down!"

The tension is high strung. Mariah's words are cutting deep and with everyone standing behind her I feel cornered. And when I'm cornered in a dire situation I do what's only natural; I fight back. I have not missed what she's just revealed.

"Live it down?" I growl, clenching my fists. My voice startles her and she steps back. "Live it down, Mariah? Is that all that's matters to you? Your image? Your perfect little world you've built around yourself? Are you angry at me because I don't love you or because I won't be able to give you the life of luxury you wanted? That's what it's always been about, isn't it?"

"Don't try to change the subject," she hisses, though her eyes are shifting nervously.

"Answer me then!"

"She doesn't have to answer to the likes of you," Lee steps in. "The point of the matter remains that you are an abomination of nature!"

"I only became an abomination after I told you," I remind. "Up until then you were on your knees begging me to let you help me. You promised to support me no matter. You promised me, Lee! You broke my trust! I trusted you to be my friend!"

"No self respecting guy will ever befriend someone who will jump him at any moment."

"Please, there is no need for such words," Mr. D know tries his luck at breaking this up.

"There's no need for such people," Lee corrects, roughly jerking his head towards me. "Fine, Ray. You wanted to be free? You wanted to be yourself? You got your wish, but go be yourself elsewhere. This sacred household doesn't need trash like you under its roof."

Mariah is looking on with smug pleasure, willing me to continue prolonging this abuse.

"You have no rights to decide who is and is not welcomed in this house," Hiro steps up, staring Lee down several notches. "You're just a guest and I for one do not appreciate the manner in which you've ignored my father's request. Nor will I stand by and watch the two of you speak of Ray in such a manner."

"What? Do you condone his choice?" Lee challenges. "You're sympathizing with someone like him?"

This is going terribly awry. I don't want to jeopardize Hiro and Brooklyn's relationship and the way Lee keeps pushing the older male makes me afraid that Hiro might accidentally let something slip and it'll be all over for them. Like he told me, the most bothersome issue for them is their age difference. I can't let either gamble with their relationship for me.

"Stop it!" I shout, getting their attention. "So you hate me, Lee. So I'm the lowest of the low in your eyes. Fine! I'm not stupid; I get the point. I've heard all I need to hear from you so either we leave it at that or one of us goes because I do not want to spend the remainder of the holidays listening to you bitch and moan about something everyone already knows."

"If I stay in this house any longer I'll be sick," Mariah whines.

"Then we'll leave," Lee decides, putting an arm around her shoulder. "I've said all I needed to say. It's over between us, Ray. From now on you will never be able to return to the White Tigers and if I were you I wouldn't even bother coming home at all."

"If you were me you would have folded like paper," I retort. "I don't care what you say or do; if you think I'm going to let you win then you've greatly underestimated me. Take that cow with you and never call my name again."

Mariah huffs at the title and opens her mouth to argue but I'm quicker.

"I've been wanting to tell you this for so long and now just as good a time as any: You're nothing but a self-centered bitch. It's always been all about you and what you wanted. You never listen to anyone else's opinion and demand everyone's attention. You cannot begin to imagine how glad I am to finally be rid of you. Look back on the times we've shared together because no other man in his right mind and free will will ever choose to marry you, mark my words." A thought occurs and I exploit it to the fullest satisfaction. "Anyone who cannot tell the difference between an Angora rabbit and old slippers, and then proceeds to throw it out in a dumpster, clearly has some faulty sense of reality."

Bam. Brooklyn pins a dark glare on her with such force it almost knocks her off her feet. For once he's not the one who's restraining,. Instead he's now being restrained by Crusher. I'll leave them to solve that one on their own. Mariah's already breaking out into a cold sweat.

"By the way, Mariah, it's high time you go on that diet of yours."

She blushes angrily, hiding behind Lee to be out of Brooklyn' s line of sight.

Pushing past them both, I pass through the large crowd that parts for me, ignoring the questions and exclaims. Tyson and Max, who I can just make out, give me reassuring looks, which are much welcomed, but not everyone shares their understanding so I don't linger. I need to get away. Climbing the stairs, leaving the now loudly talking mass of people below me, I feel emotionally drained though my feet are also dragging themselves across the floor. I can hear the adults calling for peace and Mariah is screaming her lungs out after me. I slam my bedroom door shut and lean against it, allowing my head to fall back with a thud against it. I can still hear them. I can't hide from them forever. I've single-handedly wrecked everyone's evening.

My breath frosts before me in the air and I finally notice that my window must have blown open, letting in the cold night air. I'm mildly surprised to see that it's snowing outside, the flakes fluttering into my room before melting on the floor to form icy puddles at the foot of my bed. My bed…Tiger! He's no longer on his blanket! Running over, I turn it over, hoping that he's crawled beneath it for warmth but I end up ripping the sheets off of my bed only to come up empty-handed. As the row downstairs is gradually receding I search the entire room, overturning furniture and pulling everything out of my closet. Nothing. My bedroom door was shut so he couldn't have gone out that way. All that remains is…

Poking my head out the window, I blink against the snow and stare down. I don't see him but I do see faint tracks that the snow is slowly covering up. If I wait too long I'll lose sight of them so jumping up onto the window sill, I then leap down to the ground to floors lower, landing in a crouch in the snow. I shiver as the wind and snow seeps into my skin but I refuse to go back inside for a jacket. Trying to find the right direction in which the tracks are leading, I almost do not hear the crunching of snow behind me until the last moment. Already high strung due to the confrontation in the hall with those traitors, I swing around and grab the hand that had been reaching for my shoulder. I go to flip my stalker but instead he reacts quicker and shoves me against the wall.

"That one time in the airport was just pure luck, Ray."

"Kai?"

It is him. Where has he been all this time? Had he left and returned for something or was he waiting for the right time to leave and just happened to see me prowling around in the snow? He is wearing his thick coat and gloves, so he's ready to go. He takes in my haggard appearance and produces something from beneath his coat.

"Meow?" Tiger greets me, cozily wrapped in the end tail of Kai's long scarf.

"You seem to have some trouble keeping animals inside," he muses.

"Thank you," I breathe, eagerly accepting my pet back. Kai unwraps his scarf so that Tiger remains warm and hands me the wad of cloth.

I don't know if he witnessed the ugly scene back inside but he does notice my melancholy. His head tilts slightly to one side, light bangs keeping the fluffy snow out of his eyes.

"I'm really grateful," I say quickly, my throat dry though my eyes are beginning to sting. "I must have left the window unlatched and things are so messed up right now I would have lost it if something else had happened, especially if Tiger had been hurt. Thank you so much. It's just…Back there…Did you…I told them and…They know everything and…I don't know what to do now, Kai," I say with a strangled sob. "I don't know what to do. I can't go back in there. I can't face them. I don't know what to do…"

"Come with me."

All goes silent in the night…

"Where?" I hiccup, hugging Tiger closer. The snow is beginning to melt on my skin, making my clothes damp.

"The taxi is around the corner."

What must I make of this? My mind is too muddled to pick up on his hidden messaging right now.

"I don't understand. I mean…you…and me…Are you drunk?"

A classic Ray-moment.

"Do you want to face them back in the dojo?"

"Of course not, but I have no ch--"

"Do you want to face your family so soon?"

"Not really, but how--"

"Do you want to come with me?"

"To Russia?" I finally piece together.

He nods.

I watch him skeptically. I can't help but be suspicious.

"Why are you asking me this? You get up and leave the team on Christmas day without warning. You're quitting because of me and now you want me to come with you? What are you expecting from me?" Out of the deepest shadows of my mind I remember his first words after our kiss in the spa. I've just been basically banished from my hometown by my best friend; my trust is now wavering and I do not know who to believe anymore. "I love you, Kai. I love you to the point of being desperate for any kind of attention, but even I won't go with you just to be some easy lay. I can't have your love so I was willing to just be a friend, but don't insult me by thinking that I'd settle with a sex-only relationship. This has officially been the worst night of my life and I don't need anyone adding any more salt on the wound."

"That's not why I'm asking you," he denies, turning from where he has been staring at the falling flakes.

"Then why are you?"

"I didn't change my mind, Ray. This is something I decided upon from the beginning. I'm leaving the team, because of you. Because I'm not sure what it is about you that makes me want to have you around. I need time to think it over and I can't do that with the others around. I want us both to go away for a while."

Is he…Is he honestly considering my feelings for him?

"Do you feel anything when with me?" I ask softly, afraid to break the strange atmosphere with a too loud voice. "Am I really just a friend or something more…"

"You're something different," he says plainly. He's never been the dramatic type. "I don't know what exactly, but you're…special, one way or another. I don't feel towards you what I feel for the rest of the Bladebreakers, and I neither see you in the same light as I see Tala and Bryan."

"I told you I loved you and you turned me down," I remind. "You made it clear that you aren't interested."

"It may not have been the answer you wanted, but I just don't know what to make of it. I do know that something always seems missing when you're not around to talk to or be with."

Is he being truthful? Kai may be a lot of things and may possess some controversial traits, but he has never been a liar. If he says, in his own guarded way, that he does not yet know how to interpret his feelings then I should believe him, and I do. But what if he gets everything sorted out and decides that I'm just a friend to him after all; one who he thought was closer than the rest because I was different? Putting myself at such a risk is not the wisest things I will have ever done. Am I willing to put myself through an even greater heartbreak in the long run?

"My life is fucked up, Kai," I explain, shivering. "I've lost my childhood friends, possibly my own family, my home, my people, my reputation, even my pride. All I have left are a few feelings, but I'm willing to hang on to whatever I can; I don't want to lose everything. And…if things don't work out between us, I will. I can make a choice here and start anew. To go back to square one and make a new life for myself. This life I've had has been nothing but deceitful. I don't think that I want to have anything to do with it anymore."

"Then you should come," he insists all the same, red eyes staring unwaveringly at my shivering being. "You want a new start? Come with me to Russia."

"Kai…I don't know…"

"Trust me, Ray."

I'm heartbroken. I'm cold. I'm miserable. I just want things to be the way they were. I want to go back to before this wretched week began. Back to when it was just me, the Ray everyone loved and who everyone respected, and my friends. Back to when I could spend my days and nights dreaming of Kai. Back to when…to when Kai was all that mattered to me.

"Do you think that you will ever be able to love me?"

He studies me.

"Maybe not now, but in time…will you ever be able to tell me that you love me?" I insist. "Is there the slightest possibility of that?"

He lowers his eyes, thinks for a moment, then looks back up. A gloved hand reaches out and cups my cold cheek and a body shields me from the snow as he takes a step closer. I can feel his warm breath on my face and his fiery gaze on me as he looks down at me.

"I don't know if it's the love you feel for me, but I will not leave you here on your own with those idiots. I have never loved anyone in my life, Ray, and I do not know how love is supposed to feel, but if it is what I feel towards you then, yes, I do love you."

My knees buckle but he catches me before I fall and, mindful of Tiger, he pulls me closer. His body heat passes through all those layer of clothes and feels like it's searing me to the core. To me the world no longer exists. It's only me and him in a soundless void. My free arm raises on its own and wraps around his back, fingers tightly gripping the material of his coat. I only feel him. I only hear him. I only need him. And he needs me. He wants me. Not as a one-night stand. Not as a casual friend. Not even as a lover. But as the person he loves. The first person he has admitted to having ever loved, even though he himself has only just realized that.

The snow falls around us, landing in our hair and on our shoulders. Tiger is happily purring against my chest, wrapped in the white scarf. My chin is resting on Kai's shoulder, staring up blindly at the dark night sky, watching the stars that manage to peak through the snow clouds. I remember how, in that surreal moment, Bryan had shown genuine care for another being. I remember the way Tala smiled at Bryan, despite how dangerously violent they'd argue. I remember what a difficult time it must have been for them both and how, despite all odds, they'd managed to pull through. How, in their own weird ways, similar they are to me and Kai; against all odds, they still persevere.

And I smile.

"Thank you, Kai," I whisper, burying my face in his shoulder as I allow myself the very first tears of happiness. "Thank you for being here for me."

He doesn't reply but I feel his lips gently brush my cheek and I hug him closer.

"Is that plane of yours chartered, Kai?"

We crane our necks back to find two grinning faces looking down at us from my bedroom window. Hiro and Brooklyn, beaming brighter than the stars.

"At this rate you'll reach the front gates by Valentines," Hiro points out. "Get moving, you two."

I can't muffle my laugh, which is a combination of mirth, relief and giddiness. Kai glares at the eavesdroppers.

"Don't you have a concert to go to?" he retorts.

Brooklyn looks exceptionally proud as he answers.

"Everyone left fifteen minutes ago but I'm not 'feeling so good' and Hiro has caringly volunteered to stay home and look after me."

Why those sly devils.

"But, what about…" I can't finish that sentence.

"Mr. D has agreed to arrange a flight back to China for Lee and Mariah and he brought them to a hotel to spend the night. Dad and grandpa were able to convince the others into going to the concert. We also said that we'd stay behind to make sure you were alright, though by the looks of things I think you're doing pretty well on your own."

"Wise guys," Kai scoffs, still holding me. "Are you going to make yourselves useful or are you just going to waste our time?"

Brooklyn disappears inside. Hiro smiles down at me, leaning on his arms over the ledge.

"It's not as bad as you think," he says. "They're a bit stunned, but your teammates wanted to come up and see you after you left. As far as they are concerned you're still their friend. The others have some mixed feelings, but everyone agrees that Mariah must have been raiding the fridge at night. Oh, and Kai, I'll make sure to mail Bryan's present to her tomorrow. Hope they can deliver live cargo to hotels."

Live cargo…from Bryan…Hope Mariah has health insurance. Then again, I hope not.

"Heads up."

Something lands in the snow beside us. My travel bag, packed and ready. Brooklyn waves something at me before dropping it as well. I catch it. My passport. The last thing down is the jacket that Kai bought me. Passing Tiger to him, I gratefully put it on.

"Safe flight, my friends," the prodigy wishes, putting something else on the ledge. Duchess Isabella Teresa's fuzzy face looks down. At least, I think that that's her face.

"No matter what Kai says, make sure you come visit us," Hiro commands sternly. "Either you come to us or we'll search you out."

I nod as I take Tiger back from Kai but when I reach for my bag I find that he has already picked it up and has it hanging over his shoulder, waiting on me. I blush at the gesture and bundling Tiger more securely, I give my allies a final look. Standing, or leaning, side-by-side, Brooklyn resting his cheek on Hiro's arm, they look like proud parents watching as their only child goes off to college. Yet another couple who are currently facing many problems. But, being the most solid of us all, they will easily survive the next two years until their time comes as well. I'm sure that their revelations to their family will run smoother, at least on Hiro's side. They must want to make good use of having the entire house to themselves so I will not keep them any longer and with a last 'good luck' I turn away and follow Kai, who has begun walking. I hear the window click behind me and my finer hearing picks up a muffled giggle as two bodies land on the floor. 'Not feeling so well', my ass.

Jogging slightly to catch up with Kai, I reach his side as we round the corner into the back yard. The gate is open and I can see the bright headlights on the streets beyond of our cab. My lips quirk with want to shout or laugh or do something to express the primal joy that I am feeling but I manage to keep up a calm, though glowing, façade. I hesitate before looping my arm through his. He looks at me but brushes my hand with his fingers. I bite my lower lip and look away. He shakes his head and looks straight ahead but I'm not done yet. This must be what it feels like to be high; I feel like I'm floating, even though we're walking in ankle deep snow. Leaning in, I peck him on the cheek and snicker at his surprise. He recovers quickly and steals my victory from me with a kiss of his own on my lips. I gasp but he pulls away as if nothing happened. Sneaky bastard. I pinch him.

"Are you going to be like this all the way home?" he asks, though his pinches me as well.

"No…I might sleep on the plane." I poke him in the ribs.

He snorts and drops my bag in the snow.

"Hey!" I shout after him when he walks away.

He turns, red eyes vivid behind the white specks of snow. The wind plays through his hair, blowing it softly to one side.

"What?"

I sputter and point at my neglected duffle bag.

"Clumsy you."

The nerve! When I get my hands on him I'm going to pinch him so hard it'll leave a big mark. If I pinch him on his butt he won't be able to sit comfortably on the plane. Don't you just love revenge? Snatching it up, I stomp after him, glaring as he chivalrously holds the gate open for me.

"You're sleeping on the couch when we reach," I threaten.

"It's a very nice couch," he shrugs carelessly.

I glare at him again, slitty eyes and all. He looks at me. We keep this up for a while until a horn beeps loudly, reminding us that we have one crabby cabby impatiently waiting on us.

"Hey, Kai," I speak up as we cross the white road.

"Hn?"

"What I said back there, about not wanting a sex-only relationship…You are good in bed, right?"

The Look, number 2.

"I knew it!" I say smugly. "I know how to pick my guys."

He sighs something in Russian and turns to address the taxi driver, who is claiming that since there are now two of us plus a kitten the fair will be higher. Kai begs to differ. He's stinking rich but he's not a fool. Ray Kon don't date no fool. Watching him threaten the man just by leering at him, I lean against the car. Tiger stirs and pokes his head out of the scarf, yawning widely but blinking when a snowflake lands on his nose. He sneezes at the sensation. Wiping away the offending substance, I stroke his little head, making him purr. Kai and the man reaches an 'agreement' and as the driver dejectedly walks over to take my bag Kai opens the door and gestures that I get in. I oblige, sliding onto the back seat. Kai follows and shuts the door behind us. I shuffle back closer and rest my head on his shoulder with a content sigh, lightly tracing the cast on his arm with the tip of my finger.

"Kai?"

"Hn."

"Merry Christmas."

"Was it?" he doubts, looking at me askew.

"Not exactly, but I've finally gotten the one thing I've ever wanted," I say pointedly. "So, are we flying first class?"

"It is a chartered plane," he smirks. "You can sit wherever you want. Tala usually has amusing stories to tell."

Uh oh. I forgot about them.

"They'll warm up to me now that I'm with you, right?"

"…On second thought, you'd better sit with me."

Guess that answers my question.

The motor starts and the taxi pulls away from the curb. Twisting in my seat, I look back at the dojo. Despite it all, I'm going to miss this place. I'm definitely coming back, but not just yet. I want to spend the next few months with no one other than Kai, and the inevitable company of his friends should they visit us in Russia. I don't know if this means that I might have to quit the team, most likely so, but Daichi and Kenny should be able to fill in as permanent members. I will keep contact with them and I am especially intrigued with how Hiro and Brooklyn's relationship will develop. The dark building soon fades behind the sheet of snow. I turn around and settle back against Kai, who's busy with his cell phone. Apparently Tala and Bryanhave had another argument already. Those two are like an old married couple. Looks like we're in for some entertainment on the plane when we meet up with them.

There's one thing that I do know now for sure.

After so many years, months and days, I know what 'it' is. I know what has played such a crucial role in my life. I've bitched and puzzled over 'it', unable to understand why this 'it' wouldn't just leave me alone. Everywhere I turned I was confronted by this thing, this phenomena that seemed to have a mind of its own. From Duchess Isabella Teresa, a.k.a. It, to the mysterious 'it' that is the ongoing life drama between Tala and Bryan to what I have long expected concerning my admiration for Kai.

'It', as it turns out, is love.

And that's all I need to know.

Merry Christmas.


The End


A/N: And there you have it. After so many delays and setbacks, the final chapter, which contains a whopping 18500 or so words. I had considered cutting it in half once more, but I just thought 'Screw it' and posted everything. There was just so much to do in here; I thought I'd never get it finished. I was having major trouble writing the Kai/Ray scene once they were both outside since I had to make Kai's reasoning and decision credible. Also a pain was the last conflict between Ray and Lee and Mariah. Yeah, I didn't kill her off, but since we don't know what Bryan gave her…All in all, I am proudly pleased with this story.

I would like to thank you all for your enthusiasm and support. I have been lazy and have missed my deadline by nearly two months but we've finally reached the end. Test your imagination and pretend that it isn't so and you'll still get the holiday mood. Final summarizing reviews are always appreciated.

A special shout goes to Vampirycent: You're the type of reviewer every writer loves to have and the type of guy every gal loves to know!Never, ever change!

Thank you, everyone!

Namarie,

Ladya C. Maxine