"This Year"

Disclaimer: I, KittySand Katie as I am known here, do not own Nintendo, U2, Sony, or Tamora Pierce.

It was a silly thing to say, but Keiko envied the mall this time of year. That is, if it's possible to envy a gigantic, lifeless arrangement of stone.

The largest mall in Tokyo was completely decorated, with the fountain in the middle of it all drained and covered with, what else, the largest and most beautiful Christmas tree in Tokyo. Gold, red, and purple sphere ornaments of all sizes hung from different levels of the tree, as well as from the balconies of higher levels and the ceiling. At the bottom, middle-school show choirs were singing Western carols she'd grown accustomed to. Packed with what seemed to be half the population of Tokyo, the mall was a happy and filled atmosphere.

Keiko, on the other hand, wasn't.

"Keiko-neesan! Keiko-neesan!" Screamed her six-year-old cousin, Koko, while tugging at Keiko's skirt. "What do you think Hotaru-chan wants for Christmas?"

Keiko shrugged and shook her leg, not too violently, but just enough to get the nagging child off of her. "I've never even met Hotaru, so why would I know?"

Koko gave her a big grin, filled with her new front teeth. "Mommy says that teenagers know everything!"

Keiko grunted through her teeth as she passed the singing children to catch up with her uncle, who smiled at her. "Keiko-chan, if you'd like, you can go on your own little expedition, and I'll take care of Koko-chan and Kane-chan,"

It was a kind offer, something her aunt surely would never give to her, but she looked down at the toddler boy in her uncle's arms and raised an eyebrow. "You can't take care of him by yourself, can you?"

He shook his head. "Just be back by the big Christmas tree at five o'clock,"

Keiko looked at her watch. 3:15. She gave a thankful smile. "You have no idea what you're doing,"

Her uncle nodded and Keiko was off. Well, sort of.

She went up to the nearby candy store and got a bag of chocolate-covered pretzels, then sitting down and watching the shoppers go by, toting crying children, happy children, and people like her.

Every year at Christmas, Keiko's parents went to Hawaii, to celebrate in a different atmosphere, she supposed, which had left her with her uncle. She didn't mind Yoshi-ojisan- in fact, he was one of the nicest people she knew, but it was when he got married that things got difficult. Her aunt didn't like the "dirtiness" of public society, which immediately put a bit of a rift in their relationship when she met Keiko's best friend.

Keiko leaned her head back, looking up at the ceiling. Christmases were always lonely for her.

She wondered if it would always be that way. Fifty years later, would she sit on the same bench, and look to a new generation of joyous shoppers that didn't include her?

The thought had been haunting her persistently ever since she found out about his real job.

Of course, it was a relief that he was working for the underworld and not a drug dealer, but she'd had this feeling, this feeling of loneliness, ever since she saw them all together, him and all of his new friends. She remembered that he'd been laughing, smiling, happy. He hadn't had such an extreme taste of exuberance for a long time. What did that say about her?

Keiko knew: It meant that she couldn't give him happiness. They, on the other hand, could. It was inevitable that he'd end up leaving her behind, and she'd be alone with her unspoken feelings forever.

And as much as she slapped him, nagged him, and screamed at him, Keiko couldn't think of life without him right there beside her.

Almost immediately, Keiko snapped her fingers. That was it! His apartment was right next to the mall, she could just go see him, tell him, and come back to the mall! Her aunt would never know.

Her other hand clutched her untouched bag of chocolate-covered pretzels as she stood up, a woman with a purpose. He loved chocolate.

She ran to the street exit of the mall, bumping into several people who yelled fiercely at her. Keiko didn't care anymore: Her mind was finally going to rest. She almost ran through the spinning door on her way out, and then to the left to his apartment complex.

Running up the stairs as though they would crumble behind her, she found his floor, and soon following the door to his apartment. Keiko put her hands on the door and panted for a few moments, and then banged on the door as there was no bell. "Yusuke?" She screamed, still banging. "Yusuke, are you in there? Yusuke?"

She was starting to bang against the door again when it opened, revealing Atsuko in her nightgown, looking sick. "Oh, hello Atsuko-san! Is Yusuke here?"

"Nope, he said he had to go somewhere," She answered, slurring her words together and lazily scratching her head. "But will you remind him to bring back a six-pack?"

Well, Atsuko was having a normal day, observed Keiko. "Uhhh…sure. Thank you!"

The door shut slowly, and Keiko walked down the stairs, defeated. She knew that "somewhere" was another mission.

Wait a minute…if it was another mission, he would have told her, wouldn't he…?

It was only a sign, she thought, that he really is going to leave me. She started eating her chocolate pretzels as she went back in the mall, trying not to let her eyes turn into faucets.

Maybe, just maybe, her present would fight her case.

Keiko doubted that. It was a terrible time, trying to buy Yusuke presents. You never really knew what he wanted. Then again, she was the same way.

Finding herself by the tree again, Keiko looked at the giant mall clock. It was 3:52 P.M.

She spent the rest of the time she had to herself finishing up her Christmas shopping for her parents- she'd purchased and wrapped all the presents for Yusuke and his friends (Assuming she'd see them eventually), but not for her parents. Keiko ended up buying them an old movie poster they'd wanted to hang in their bedroom. The thought of being left behind drifted into the back of her head for a short time.

At five o'clock, she went back to stand by the tree, and soon enough, her aunt, uncle, Koko, and Kane returned from their own Christmas shopping, toting gigantic shopping bags. Keiko immediately rushed to her aunt, taking two large bags for herself. The woman didn't seem much happier.

They loaded the goods into Yoshi-ojisan's silver SUV and Keiko was then sandwiched in between the two children, Kane bawling in his booster seat. His mother tried to hush him from the front, but to no avail.

"What did you get, Keiko-chan?" asked her uncle. She didn't answer, staring past Koko at the apartment complex, lost in worried thought.

"Keiko-chan?" Oji-san repeated.

Keiko jumped. "Oh. I got them an old movie poster they wanted. It was the movie they met each other at, apparently."

"What movie was that?" asked her aunt.

Keiko smiled weakly, having passed the complex. "'The Exorcist.'"

Yoshi-ojisan laughed, while his wife's face grew white. "Nii-san was always one for horror movies."

His niece responded with a lazy nod, finding a little comfort in the silliness of his wife.


Keiko admitted that it was a cute display- A little white table by the Christmas tree with a glass of milk and Kane and Koko's Christmas wish list.

All it was missing were some cookies for St. Nicholas, which Keiko had kindly agreed to making. She wasn't a wonderful cook like her parents were, but she figured that she could keep her mind away from Yusuke for a while.

Keiko opened up the pantry and looked for the ingredients to make chocolate chip cookies, the requested flavor from Koko. Moving sugar, flour, and peanut butter, Keiko couldn't find any chocolate chips. Hmm, she thought, maybe they keep them in the refrigerator.

She opened their fridge and found the reason: Sitting on the second shelf was ready-to-bake cookie dough.

It was strange, but she couldn't deny that cooking ready-to-bake cookies rubbed her off the wrong way. Keiko took them out anyway, knowing her uncle was on a tight schedule. The oven beeped behind her, telling her she could put the cookie dough in. Putting the little rolls on a pan, she stuck that in the oven. She walked over to their dinner table and took a seat, toying with a pencil.

"You know…boredom is not an emotion one should feel on Christmas Eve." Sighed Keiko, throwing the pencil across the room. It was only when she went to retrieve it that she realized someone else had said the same thing. She turned around. "Botan, you're going to break that pot!" She whispered. Botan immediately made her oar disappear, falling to the floor of her uncle's house. "What are you even doing here?" Keiko asked.

Botan stood up and brushed the dirt off of her kimono, which was gold with poinsettia flowers. Her blue hair was in her trademark ponytail, and the ferry girl had a huge smile on her face. "Did you-"

"Be quieter! They're watching some movie about this Grinch thing in there and I don't want them to find out about you!"

Botan nodded. "Well, anyway, did you forget about the Christmas party?"

Keiko's eyes narrowed and she put a hand on her hip. "What Christmas party?" It's another sign, she thought, another sign…

"You didn't know, Keiko?" Keiko shook her head no. "Well, Kuwabara told Yukina about Christmas, and Yukina loves the winter so a winter holiday made her very happy, so she asked Genkai if she could have a thank-you and Christmas party at the temple tonight and tomorrow. So I told Yusuke that when he came, he was to bring you along with him, and he walked through the door of the temple, and I asked, 'Where's Keiko?'. He slapped his face and, believe it or not, felt really terrible about it! So I got on my oar and came to get you! I already have all the presents you so kindly bought." Botan pointed to a large brown bag behind her back. "So, let's go have fun!"

"Botan…I have to bake cookies for my aunt and uncle. And they'll be worried if they come in here and I'm gone…Botan?"

Her friend had walked across the room to the den, where her family was watching the strange movie. She opened the door and took a few more strides inside the room. Keiko heard talking, but couldn't make out words, and then Botan closed the door and looked back at Keiko.

"It's all taken care of!" Botan hopped out the window with the bag and materialized her oar. "So hop on!"

Keiko shook her head, letting out a few giggles as she took a seat on Botan's oar. The blue-haired girl took off, flying just above the tallest buildings in Tokyo. Keiko gasped as she looked at the millions of beautiful shining lights, and a select few people were pointing in the sky, seemingly at them. Her hair was flying crazily all around her face, and her hoop-skirted red velvet

dress blew up in a fashion Yusuke would have loved.

"All right," said Botan, "I let you see this great scenery, but I think people are starting to stare. We're going to go a little faster, okay?"

"Sure," Keiko replied, not really knowing what to say. A "little" faster turned out to be an understatement, at least to Keiko. It seemed like Botan was going over one hundred miles an hour, and then as soon as Tokyo was gone, she went to a screeching halt and seemed to be gliding.

"How fast are we going there now?" She asked.

"Fast enough to get there before seven thirty,"

Keiko nodded. There was a long silence as she looked out to the world below her. "So…who is there?"

Botan thought about this for a moment, and then turned around. "When we're there, there'll be nine people. Koenma…couldn't make it, so that means you, me, Yukina, Shizuru, Genkai, Yusuke, Kuwabara, Kurama, and if you can believe it, Hiei's actually there too."

She just nodded again, not sure whether to be excited or scared. Botan had looked a bit distracted herself since they left Tokyo.

"So, he was right about that…"

"Hm? What Botan?"

"Oh, nothing! Just talking to myself." The ferry girl swerved around a tree, rising up into the sky again. Keiko wasn't sure if she was imagining things, but she swore she saw a lengthy amount of stairs in the distance.

That took three hours on a magnet train! Keiko couldn't believe it.

Botan sped up again, and she worried about hitting a tree or telephone pole. Botan turned at the stairs, flying upward to the temple, and stopped at the door. Both girls dismounted, and the oar disappeared.

Botan began to bang on the fragile door, and within seconds it opened. Yukina stood on the other side, beaming.

"Botan-san, you're back! With Keiko-san too. And what's that big brown bag for?" She greeted.

"Keiko bought us all presents! Isn't that sweet?" Botan and Yukina continued to talk as they walked in together. Keiko stood in her spot, dumbfounded.

She looked around the room to find everyone but Yusuke in the redecorated temple. Shizuru and Genkai sat by the fire, using it to light cigarettes and talking about the idiocy of Shizuru's younger brother. Kuwabara was getting a drink and giving his sister a glare. Hiei, the only one not dressed in holiday colors, was standing in a corner and mumbling something to Kurama, who wasn't listening at all. Another look at the nicely-dressed redhead and Keiko swore he was staring at Botan's back, grinning about something with a drink in hand.

Yukina had decorated the place festively as well. Red and green garlands hung from the ceiling, and some new red chairs, one of which Kurama was sitting in, were around the fireplace. To the left of the fireplace was a house-sized Christmas tree with what appeared to be photographs hanging off its branches.

A perfect picture, she thought, noting the fact that she wasn't in it.


She jumped and looked to the fireplace, where Shizuru was pointing a lit cigarette at her. "Hm?"

"Are you going to stand there like an idiot, or are you going to get a drink and come sit by me?"

Keiko followed her "instructions" and almost coughed from the smoke fumes. Seeing this, Shizuru stopped smoking: Genkai suddenly went outside. Keiko sipped the unknown drink and looked into the fire. "You look thrilled," Shizuru observed.

"Oh? Me? I'm fine," Keiko answered.

"If you're fine, the world is flat," she replied, rolling her eyes. Keiko didn't have an answer for that, unfortunately.

Keiko turned herself around, seeing Kuwabara carrying in a television with a measly NES attached to it. Swerving around a chair, he set down the television on the other side of the fireplace, hooking its cords into a nearby outlet. Botan cradled some VHS tapes in her arms, setting them carefully on the floor in front of the television.

Her eyes lit up. "Oooh, are we watching Christmas movies?"

Botan laughed. "Oh, no, these are home videos!"

"Don't worry, Keiko-san, I got to see them. They're all very cute." Yukina assured, bringing in a tray of different-colored spritz cookies. Keiko began to force herself up to get a few.

"Hey! Kuwabara! What'd you do with the Nintendo while I was in the bathroom?" Keiko made a quick step to the right to avoid getting trampled by none other than Urameshi Yusuke, self-proclaimed king of Nintendo.

She blushed. He looked awfully cute in a form-fitting green sweater and his straight-leg blue jeans, although he hadn't resisted putting that gel in his hair. Maybe next time, she thought.

Kuwabara looked down on the television. "Oh, well, it was connected to the TV, and I took the TV in here so we could watch-"

"Did you not see that I was about to beat that hag's record?"

He received a glare from Genkai, but didn't seem to notice. Kuwabara shook his head to Yusuke's question, and the teen just sighed.

Keiko, who was standing right next to him, tapped his shoulder. "Um, Yusuke…hi…"

He jumped and immediately looked over, giving her an up-down. She expected him to say something perverted, as that was all she was really good for: A degrading remark. He didn't, though, he just gave a very small smile and said, "Hey."

Keiko didn't know if it was a good or bad omen, but she was definitely turning redder, so she turned around and sat in a chair. He plopped down on the floor next to her, and the rest of the group began to get situated around the television. Yukina passed around her cookies and refills of the drinks, with even Hiei taking a number of treats. Kuwabara invited her to take his seat, but she declined, putting in the first video.

"So, what are we doing, watching home movies until midnight, and then opening the gifts?" Shizuru asked.

Botan and Yukina nodded in unison and the ice maiden pressed the "play" button on the VCR.

As a picture came on the screen, Kuwabara started chuckling. "I know what this is,"

A younger Shizuru stood by a Christmas tree, with a ten-year-old Kuwabara next to her, smiling. A voice in the background said, "Shizuru, you don't look happy,"

The television Shizuru scoffed, lighting a cigarette. "Should I pretend to be something I'm not?"

"Put that away, Shizuru!" The voice warned, just as the flame still on her lighter lit a branch of the tree, which burst into flames. The young Kuwabara and Shizuru were laughing while the tree of green became a tree of flames, and soon a red-haired woman was extinguishing the tree, screaming.

The entire room, minus Kurama, was laughing. Hiei snickered in his corner, Yusuke rolling on the floor.

Ironically, Shizuru lit a cigarette. "That never gets old, ne?"

Kuwabara nodded enthusiastically. "Never, sis, will that get old,"

Yukina stopped the video and slipped in another one. Keiko recognized the setting as the mall she'd been in earlier, in the area where Santa Claus sat for children to give him their wishes. Another voice came from beyond the screen. "Okay, Shuuichi is four, and I decided to take him to see Santa Claus for the first time…"

A short, red-haired boy in a powder blue tuxedo was on the screen. Kurama's eyes widened. "Who got this?"

Yusuke smirked. "I did."

The little Shuuichi went up to Santa Claus and sat on his lap, finishing quickly. "What did you ask for, Shuuichi?" The female voice questioned, her tone sweet and loving.

Shuuichi gave a terribly fake smile. "Your well-being, mother,"

Kurama's eyes were still wide open. "Take…that…out…"

"Someone's got a stick up their ass tonight, and I think I know why…" Yusuke said, smirking again at him.

Yukina reached in to take the tape out. "You really were a handsome child, Kurama-san," she commented.

"I second that." Botan added with a smile.

"Third." Said Keiko.


"Wait a minute!" Keiko looked down at a flustered Yusuke. She couldn't help but wonder if he was flustered about her, and if that was true…"Yukina, could you roll the tape I found? I am such a cuter kid than fox boy."

Kurama gave a teasing smile. "Always a competition, isn't it? Even on Christmas Eve…"

"Here it is, Yuu-san," said Yukina, "This really was my favorite tape,"

She took out the previous tape from the VCR and put Yusuke's tape in instead. The setting this time was the inside of the Yukimura Diner, where two little children sat at a table, one in a little Christmas tux, the other in a plaid dress.

Keiko smiled. The first Christmas she shared with a friend.

Her mother set down two plates and sets of chopsticks next to the children, saying, "Here's your Christmas feast!" Yusuke, his hair not touched by gel, looked at the food as though he was looking at a unicorn. His eyes were extremely wide.

Five-year-old Keiko poked Yusuke's shoulder with her chopsticks. "Aren't you going to eat, silly?"

He swatted her chopsticks away and began munching in the most unmannerly way possible, getting his face covered in juice from the basil beef. He put his head up to sip his drink and Keiko glared at him. "What?" he asked.

"You meanie," she said, waving her chopsticks, "Don't you know any manners?"

"That's embarrassing…" Keiko muttered under her breath. "Why didn't Dad just stop the camera there?"

They watched, highly amused, as Yusuke jumped from his chair and knelt on the floor, closing his hands together. "Keiko?"

The little Keiko crossed her arms and looked down on him. "What?"

He smiled and opened up his hands to reveal a soggy noodle formed into a ring. "Will you marry me?"

In the background of the tape, Keiko's parents could be heard laughing and cooing. The new audience was simply guffawing as Yukina stopped the tape.

"You proposed with a noodle?" Kuwabara asked. "You're bad, Urameshi, you're bad,"

"And I have to say that was very cute, but not as cute as Kurama in a blue tuxedo," said Botan.

"I second that." Shizuru added.

"You guys are totally biased!" Yusuke shot back.

"So?" The two girls replied, in perfect unison.

There were ample more videotapes to be shown until midnight hit and all of them were watched by Keiko. She became absorbed in clapping and commenting on cuteness or hilarity, finding that she wasn't the only one who did their dumbest things while being taped.

"Could you pause it, Yukina?" she asked some time later. "I need to go to the bathroom,"

"Mm hm." Said Yukina, pausing the tape.

Keiko tried to get up and couldn't get something large off her right leg. She shook it violently and still couldn't get the thing off.

She looked down. It was Yusuke's entire upper body, sleeping on her leg. She shook her head and kicked her way out of her position, not worrying about waking him up.

"He says he's such a man," She said, laughing, "But can't even stay up until midnight."



Yukina and Botan held barrels of red and green confetti and began to throw clusters of the small squares in the air. The girls of the party (Minus Genkai, who had gone to bed a few hours earlier) huddled around the two confetti-throwers and jumped up and down, yelling, "Merry Christmas!". Yusuke and Kuwabara had both fallen asleep, while Hiei and Kurama had been quiet for most of the night.

Keiko, confetti stuck in her hair, knelt down and shook Yusuke's body. "Yusuke?"

He didn't open his eyes, but Keiko saw his lips curl into a frown. "Wha…?"

She giggled. "Merry Christmas."

His eyes shot open and he stood up immediately. "What? No, I wasn't sleeping, you were seeing things! I've been awake this whole time!"

Keiko smiled. "It's okay. You weren't the only one."

Yusuke's eyes darted over to a still-sleeping Kuwabara. "Ha! Look at that pansy!"

Unfortunately for Yusuke, Kuwabara woke up just before he opened his mouth. "What was that, Rip van Winkle?" The carrot-top shot back.

"What the hell is Ruann Winkle, your crotch?"

Keiko couldn't resist laughing at that remark, and she feared Shizuru would choke on her drink, as she heard the older girl cackling in the background.

"Now, now, children, it's Christmas!" Hollered Botan, standing in between the sleeping beauties with her arms outstretched. "It's time to open presents."

The group took seats again, Keiko back in her red armchair. "Now…who's going to go first?" said Botan.

Yukina took out a little red hat from behind her back. "I put everyone's name in this so we could draw names out of a hat…" She dug her hand into the hat and pulled out a slip of paper. She unfolded it and read it aloud. "It's Yuu-san!" She cried.

Yusuke stood up again and sauntered over to the Christmas tree, whispering something cocky and stepping on Kuwabara's foot. He took a handful of gifts and returned to his spot right in front of Keiko, stretching out his legs as though her own weren't even there.

He ripped open his first present in the same fashion as Keiko remembered from last year. He tossed the top of the white box into the distance and looked down. "Kurama…how did you get these?"

His companion shrugged. "I've got connections."

"Well, guess what Kuwabara? I've got tickets to U2 and you are definitely not coming!"

"WHAT? Kurama, you are never living this down!" Kuwabara shrieked.

The redhead chuckled. "Don't worry about it."

The rest of Yusuke's present-opening was a blur to Keiko, as she was staring directly at her giant present that he hadn't seemed to look upon at all.

Finally, it was the last one left. Yusuke ripped through the paper just as he'd done for his other gifts, and then sat in awe when it was all unwrapped. "That…isn't…no…way…"

"Whoever got Urameshi this is automatically on my hit list!" Kuwabara remarked. Hiei said something smart a little too loudly and the two got into an argument in the background.

"Wow, Yusuke, you're really bringing in the bacon, aren't you? If only I knew what it was…" Botan trailed off.

"Botan, it's…it's…a Super Nintendo!" He paused to take in what he'd just said. Keiko smiled, thanking every god she could think of that he liked it. "Keiko, I promise I won't say anything 'perverted' about you for the rest of my life!"

"Is that a fact?" She asked teasingly. He nodded like an innocent child and she looked away, to Yukina.

The pretty ice maiden reached into the hat again and pulled out a new name. She beamed and turned her head to Botan, sea foam-colored hair flying gracefully. "Botan-san, it's your turn!"

"Me?" Botan asked, pointing to herself. Yukina nodded. "All right!"

She went over to the Christmas tree and took her own presents back to her spot by Yukina and to the right of Keiko's arm chair. Keiko noticed that the first present Botan picked up was her own. She smiled, hoping the ferry girl would like it.

"To Botan, a great friend and informative person. From Keiko. Oh, that's sweet!" Careful not to overly damage the pink paper Keiko had wrapped the gift in, Botan unwrapped the present. "Wow, what's this?" She said, looking at the box with a confused look on her face.

"It's called a walkman. We play tapes of music inside of it. I included some tapes I thought you might like."

The deity smiled. "Thank you! That's going to be another trend you start in Reikai, Keiko…"

"No problem." She said, fiddling with her hair.

Botan took the next present and began opening it in the same careful fashion. Soon she had uncovered a cute blue cat plush with very fluffy "fur", which Botan began to fuzz. "Kuwabara, this is adorable! And so soft, too. Thanks so much!"

The orange-haired teen shrugged. "I was walking in the mall and it screamed 'Botan', so I got it."

"Liar. I paid for it." Shizuru added.

"It doesn't matter. But thanks, both of you!" Just moments after she spoke, Botan was taking apart her next gift, which was a small white box with a message written across the top that Keiko could see but not well enough to decipher. Botan, much like Yusuke, tossed the top off and sat awestruck, blushing. Keiko could see the insides from her spot, and that it was a pair of dangling silver earrings with little purple flowers hanging off of the silver strands. "Oh, I get it!…that's very clever Kurama-kun, not to mention…dazzling."

Keiko looked over at Kurama and found he looked pretty out of sorts himself. "You're welcome," He answered. Yusuke was snickering below her, and Keiko slapped him.

"Ow! What was that for?" He whispered, rubbing the top of his head.

"You shouldn't laugh at undeveloped romance, Yusuke," She whispered back, not very harshly. She looked up and sighed in relief that Botan was unwrapping more presents and paying no attention to them.

"But it's funny, Keiko, because they'll always stay that way." He defended.

"How can you be so sure?"

"Yoo hoo, Keiko, it's your turn!" Botan hollered, catching Keiko totally off guard. She sat there for a few seconds before the words sunk in.

"Oh, well, I guess I should go get the presents from under the tree, ne?" She cracked a nervous smile and walked around the chairs to the tree, where she looked for gifts with her name on it. She found there were five, which she took back to her armchair. Sitting down, she found out which one was from Yusuke, and set it aside. His was always last, and even though the suspense could kill her this year, she wasn't changing her personal rule.

The first she picked up was, as the card read, from the Kuwabara family. She had never really been one for saving wrapping paper, so she tore it apart without care. As all the paper was torn away, four little books slid off the tops of one another and on to Keiko's lap. She picked one up and studied it. "These wouldn't be 'The Song of the Lioness', would they?" It was a rhetorical question, and she figured that Shizuru knew she'd wanted the series. "Thank you."

"No problem," The elder Kuwabara answered. The younger was quiet, simply nodding.

Keiko's next gift was more tall than wide and perfectly rectangular. Unwrapping the pretty blue paper, she found a red box taped shut. She pulled off the tape and reached inside, pulling out a little sculpture of a boy and girl skating with bells on their skates, seeming to be lovers. "It's very attractive," She commented, looking around the base, "Is it a music box of some sort?"

Yukina's hand came into her view and the koorime girl carefully took back the item, twisting a knob on the bottom with a smile. The Carol of the Bells began to play in a music box style across the room and the music box rotated in a circle. She handed it back to Keiko, who studied it once more. "That's cute," She said, now touching the skaters' skates. "Thanks a lot,"

"You're very welcome, Keiko-san," Yukina replied.

Setting the music box in its box on the floor, Keiko's eyes averted back to the present from Yusuke. She grew nervous and sighed, opening her next two gifts with an undertone of stress that was hard to maintain with a radio and an internship at the best hospital in Tokyo now in her possession. Realizing she'd moved so quickly, Keiko looked upon the last present again. Her hand shook with fear, but she forced it to move down and pick up the gift.

Yusuke had been staring a hole into her stomach for the past five minutes, and now he was trying to lock eyes with her, or so it seemed. Now both of Keiko's hands were shaking as she looked for a piece of tape. Finding one, she began to rip the wrapping paper off slowly, her heart wanting to burst out of her chest.

As more paper ripped off, she thought to herself, this is the moment of truth. If you're being left behind Keiko, this will tell you.

All the paper was gone now, and she looked down.

It was a picture frame.

Her heart stopped, her eyes widened.

This is the end…

Pretending to look interested, so not to upset him, she scrutinized the sample picture of the red frame.

Then she realized…it was them. Yusuke and Keiko, in kindergarten, the day her mother had stayed to take pictures. Keiko was running to the finish line of a race, probably during recess, she mused, and Yusuke stood against the railing, just a few feet away from the makeshift finish, holding out his hand. He was looking at her as though trying to see her soul, but otherwise perfectly relaxed.

She tossed the paper off but found a loose piece hanging off the back. She ripped it off as well, but then noticed it was a note, and not wrapping paper.

Being Yusuke's handwriting, it was hard to decipher, but short.

I wouldn't finish without you.

She noticed just slightly that the buzz of talking in the background had ceased completely. Contemplating the note for about half a second, Keiko realized what the words said.

Her only comment came out as a crackling whisper. "How did you know?"

When she looked at him, he finally succeeded to lock eyes with her. Yusuke looked positively giddy now, and Keiko wondered if he was all right. "You begin to notice these things after a while," he said, starting to get up. She began to rub her thumb over the top of the frame, admiring the picture. She felt completely relieved of everything she'd worried about for…a very long time.

Keiko looked up to thank him and found that her best friend was on his knees in front of her, staring deeply as in the photograph, his loose bangs falling over his eyes. Her hands grasped the frame tighter, sweating, and her face became a pepper. He was looking a little pink himself. "You know..." He began.

A sudden shock went through her body and she was sweating twice as much. "Hmm?" She responded, unable to talk.

He was getting closer to her until their noses were practically touching, and it seemed as though the room of people surrounding them disappeared into thin air. A quick laugh escaped him. "There are other things you notice after nine years."

And half an hour into Christmas Day, a long-delayed romance finally blossomed.


Note 1: Total word count of "This Year": 5,631. My comments on this? As Frank would say, holy crap.

Note 2: So, how did you guys like it? I really didn't expect it to be this long, and if this aggravated any of you or killed the mood for you, I apologize. Honestly, it wasn't my intention. As for the Kurama/Botan hints, I apologize for that as well- what can I say? It's an unhealthy addiction.

Another note: Yusuke and Kuwabara are U2 fans because I am and I listened to "Pride (In the Name of Love)", my favorite U2 song, about five times while writing this. Got a problem with that, get an issue tissue. xD

This ficlet was inspired by Christina Aguilera's "This Year" Christmas song off of her Christmas CD "My Kind of Christmas". Go get it- she's a great singer.

Until my next Yusuke/Keiko Christmas ficlet…