The Gift of Giving

This is a Christmas fic I started working on during the festive season in 2005, and am finishing this year. I hope you'll enjoy it!

"Tree of Joy?" the little boy asked, peering inquisitively at Yuki, one of the volunteers who helped at the orphanage. "What is it?"

"It's a special tree for special children like you, Mamoru-kun," she answered in her usual gentle manner. "All you have to do is write down something that you would like to receive as a gift this Christmas, and a kind person will grant you that request."

"Is it that simple?" Mamoru was wide-eyed at the thought of the concept. How could a total stranger possibly be interested in giving him something?

"Yes it is, my dear." She concealed any of her doubts with another warm smile. Mamoru had always been one of the more intelligent and sensible boys in the orphanage, and was also considered as the most sensitive child. It would shatter any remaining hope and happiness he still had if nobody picked up his tag and bought whatever present he desperately wanted.

"I will have to think really hard about this one," he replied with a shy smile, though his eyes were sparkling with excitement. "I will be back soon."

As the boy walked to his room, trying to remain dignified even at his young age, Yuki sent a silent prayer that the one small gift which could determine Mamoru's future would turn up.

Mamoru stood before the tree, one hand on his chin, deep in thought. He could probably afford to take twenty of the cardboard bell-shaped ornaments this year – heck, his lack of expenditure and generous income allowed him to clear the entire tree if he wished, and it wasn't as if he had anyone else to buy presents for – but it would probably drive him crazy trying to think of twenty unique gift ideas. It had always been a difficult process for him, and perhaps he was being a bit pedantic, but he wanted to give someone a present that they would cherish, one that formed a connection between him and the unknown receiver.

A tag caught his eye: "A book on opera for a gentleman". Mamoru smiled – oh yes, there were quite a few ideas he could come up with that one. It pleased him immensely that the beauties of Classical Music did not discriminate between social classes, and that there was a gentleman out there with measly possessions who wanted nothing more than to curl up to a book about his favourite operas. Mamoru lifted the tag off the synthetic green branch, and placed it in his bag with the dozen others he had already chosen.

Before he left the tree, he took two other tags with him – "A picture book for a 4 year-old girl" and "a music CD for a lady". Satisfied with the fifteen tags tucked safely in his bag and slightly regretful about not being able to clear the tree of its decorations, he headed toward the Crown Arcade.

"Yatta!" Usagi squealed, arms flying wildly. "Only two more days until Christmas!"

Her friends laughed at her exuberance, feeling their spirits lift. The girl's cheerfulness was definitely contagious.

"So, minna," Usagi asked excitedly, "what do you guys want for Christmas?"

"Motoki-kun!" Minako shouted with enthusiasm. "I want Motoki-kun—"

Hearing his name, the blonde man walked to the girls' booth. "Yes, Minako-chan?"

"Motoki-kun!" After the surprised exclamation, Minako faltered. "Err... How, err... Very nice to see you!"

"It's nice to see you too," Motoki smiled, albeit a bit confused. He had already exchanged greetings with the girls when they first entered the arcade, and he was pretty sure Minako was among the bunch. He also wasn't sure if he wanted to know the reason behind the other girls' giggling, or Minako's blush, for that matter. "What is it that you wanted?"

"Um, well..." She looked desperately at Usagi, who had an impish grin on her face. Minako tried a different approach and narrowed her eyes, hoping the glare would spark Usagi into action.

"A chocolate sundae please, Motoki-nii-san!" Usagi finally declared, after what seemed like an eternity to Minako. She flashed the older man a grin, then mouthed 'you owe me one' to her blushing friend.

Slightly dazed at the possibilities of a hidden motive behind Usagi's order despite the normality of the food desired, Motoki nodded in confirmation. One shouldn't attempt to deny Usagi's attachment to chocolate if they wanted to see the next sunrise.

"I'm not sure if that's good for your immune system," Ami said quietly, sipping on some green tea as she kept her attention on a book on literary criticism. "It's been rather cold lately, even by typical standards, and—"

"Don't worry, Ami-chan!" Usagi interrupted. "Ice-cream tastes the best in winter, although it is rather good in summer, and autumn's yummy too, and spring as well..."

"A strange sentence, said by a weirder girl," Rei commented offhandedly, suppressing a smile.

"Oi, it was a good sentence that made lots of sense and was about ice-cream! And who are you calling 'weird'?" Not too disconcerted by the sceptical looks she was getting, Usagi turn to Motoki again. "So the sundae, please!"

"Of course." As long as he went with the flow, he wouldn't end up with the danger of being exceptionally confused. "Anything else for you girls?"

"A cup of green tea for me, please," Rei requested.

"Perhaps the recipe to the pancakes you serve on Sunday mornings?" Makoto asked, not quite successful in hiding her interest.

"I'm not sure if that's allowed," Motoki said hesitantly, "but the tea I could do."

Looking jealously at her friends, who could so easily exchange their words with the cute blonde, Minako tried to show what she was capable of.

"I want Motoki!" she declared again, triumphantly. When silence followed, she looked around nervously, and licked her lips. "-kun to get me a strawberry sundae," she finished lamely.

"Got it," Motoki said after a slight pause, trying not to sound strained. "I'll be back with your orders in a few minutes."

He gave a last nod and a forced smile to the girls and walked away, hoping he didn't appear too eager to escape their bizarre ways. Mamoru was seeming more comprehendible by the minute.

"What was that about?" Rei asked, amused by the stumped look Minako had on her face.

"I think she was trying to flirt," Makoto threw in. Her eyes locked with those of a guy who had been glancing at her for a while, and she winked at him. "Key word being 'try'."

"Don't be mean!" Minako protested, looking at Usagi for support, who was deep in thought. Slightly concerned that maybe her friend was going for Motoki too, Minako waved a hand before Usagi. "Whatcha thinking about?"

Usagi let out a breath which sounded suspiciously like a sigh. "Christmas presents... You know, this would be a lot easier if you guys just tell me what you want."

"But that would ruin the element of surprise," Ami replied in her usual matter-of-fact tone. She took a sip of her tea, marked her page with neat, controlled movements, carefully closed it, and then gave her full attention to Usagi. "No matter what people say, it is the thought that counts, Usagi-chan. We are all very grateful to have you as our friend and companion, making any other materialistic gifts quite unnecessary."

"Or maybe you could promise to never come late to a meeting," Rei chimed in, violet eyes lit with laughter, "but perhaps that would be too much for you."

"Hey, I'm not that bad," the blonde said with mock anger. "Besides, that won't be..."

"Practical?" Makoto interrupted.

"Possible?" supplied Rei.

"Feasible?" Ami suggested.

"Very fun?" Minako looked hopeful.

"A decent present," finished Usagi. She took a moment to register the meaning behind her friends' words, then scrunched up her face. "Guys! It's not as if I can't manage being on time for once!"

"Hasn't happened yet," Rei said, while Makoto nodded in agreement.

"Well, that's because... Public transport isn't reliable!"

"But Tokyo has the most efficient public transport system in the world," Makoto pointed out. "Besides, you never take the bus or train; you always walk." Usagi shot her a look.

"That's not the point though," Usagi pouted, annoyed at not being able to convey her thoughts. It wasn't as if she was looking for attention or anything, but she simply enjoyed buying gifts for people. It was also the only time when she could truly indulge in her shopping and feel excited about the reaction of the receiver, which was why she had to ensure every last brain cell was overworked so that a perfect present would be given.

Usagi knew all this – they were, after all, her own feelings – but all her attempts to articulate it to her friends had been futile, and none of them had really understood her. And so, it seemed like Usagi was destined to ponder over another batch of gifts by herself.

"Yay, Motoki-kun is back!" Minako declared non-so-subtly, before realising the man himself had clearly heard what she said. "...with my ice-cream!"

"Perhaps this may rejuvenate you, Usagi-chan," Ami said gently as Motoki handed out the chocolate treat.

"Arigatou, Ami-chan, Motoki-nii-san," was Usagi's reply, devoid of its usual flamboyant tone. The girls frowned, worried.

The arcade's sliding doors opened, closed, and a familiar shadow fell across the girls' table.

"Whatever happened to your inextinguishable hyperactivity, Odango Atama?" the smooth voice drawled, causing Usagi to perk up immediately. "Would a friendly argument remedy that?"

"Depends on how you define 'friendly'," Usagi grumbled, eliciting a chuckle from Mamoru. Finding herself liking the sound, she suddenly considered something which had always slipped her mind before. "Say, Mamoru-baka, is there anything you'd like for Christmas?"

Instantly suspicious, Mamoru turned his questioning gaze to Motoki, who shrugged and went to serve another customer. The expectant look Usagi held made something within him sing.

"Captivation," he replied without further hesitation. "I would love to be captivated this Christmas."

Giving Usagi a polite nod, he disappeared out those sliding doors, leaving the girl to ponder his words.

Mamoru placed his keys on the brass hook by his door, and bathed in the usual sense of peace tinged with loneliness his apartment seemed to emanate. He felt slightly foolish for telling Usagi his one Christmas wish, knowing that it was a 'gift' he would never be able to receive. Perhaps it was simply in his personality to find most things boring or beneath his interest, resulting in his indifferent attitude towards most of what he encountered. Or perhaps it was the life-changing experiences he had acquired, constantly reminding him of the superficiality most objects held underneath their glamorous facades, until his perception became controlled by cynicism and wary recognition. He had gotten used to viewing the mundane world in shades of grey, and now ached for a glimpse of colour.

And it was there. Hidden in the emptiness of his apartment, of his heart, was something that had never failed to captivate him. Taking slow steps, he walked to his bedroom, opened the bedside drawer, and lightly touched the hard cover. Carefully, tenderly, lovingly, he took out the book, and felt the world freeze.

"Merry Christmas, Yuki-san." Mamoru bowed politely to the lady. She smiled, noticing how his eyes were focused on the pile of wrapped gifts under the small Christmas tree.

"Merry Christmas, Mamoru-kun. Would you like to have a closer look?" She gestured at the presents.

"Yes, please!" The eagerness was evident, yet he still paused.After a moment's thought, he wrapped his arms tightly around Yuki's waist. Though surprised at the unusual display of emotion from the boy, she returned the hug, barely hearing his whisper."I wanted to get you a cute teddy bear for Christmas, but I think you'll have to do with the huggable Mamoru-bear."

Tears crept into Yuki's eyes as she registered his words. "Argiatou. It's perfect."

He drew back from her after a while, and gave her a smile before heading toward the tree. As the other children marvelled at their gits, Mamoru scanned for his name on the gift tags, the excitement brimming within him.

He nearly missed it;written clumsily in hiragana on an envelope were the characters of his name. His breath caught as he reached for it, and his fingers shook when he placed it on his lap.

It took him a long while to decide whether to unwrap his present or open his card first. He wanted to know what his mysterious benefactor got him, but it also excited him that they had bothered to write a card, which many of the other children hadn't received. Perhaps it even identified the giver so that he could somehow thank them for their generosity. That thought decided him.

He turned to the back of the envelope, where it was sealed with a shiny red sticker in the shape of a heart. He carefully opened it, making sure nothing would be torn, and took out a hand-drawn card of an indistinguishable animal wearing a Santa's hat, holding onto a present. Though slightly puzzled, his heart continued thudding as he opened it to read the childish scrawl. His first card.

'Dear Mamo-chan,

This is my favourite book ever. Please take good care of it!'

It was not signed, but there was a doodle of something that resembled a bear's head. Mamoru flipped the card to the back, and upon finding no other contents, started turning it around in his frantic hands. This could not be it – this had to be something more than a child's game! Mamoru had loved reading the books that belonged to orphanage library, and had always wanted a copy of his own book. When he requested his gift, he had not specified the type, but had hoped he might receive something by Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, or perhaps Jules Verne. Something with substance, where he could spend hours soaking in words which flowed smoothly and formed ribbons around him, holding him spellbound...

He shook his head, dismissing all the negative thoughts he was having, and started unwrapping the parcel, willing himself to be content with whatever he uncovered. His first present.

The last piece of coloured paper fell away, revealing the cover. His heart fell. It was a children's book after all. Mamoru suddenly felt angry with himself, for all the high expectations he held. This was probably going to be the only thing he would ever receive, and it had to be so some stupid picture book with an absurd name.

He could not let his disappointment show. He already knew the nature of this book – some stupid story a stupid baby liked – but it would be disrespectful not to read it, at least once.

He opened the cover, and was instantly overwhelmed with the scent of a fresh, glossy-papered book. Turning the page, he narrowed his eyes at the way the good quality paper seemed to reflect the early sunlight. Flipping through the credits and acknowledgements, he braced himself for the first page of the story.

The colours jumped at him, compelling in their dark shades. It was a beautifully painted page depicting a cold, snowy winter's night. Suddenly unsure of what to expect, he went to the next page without having read any of the text, and was instantly mesmerised by glowing orange and reds inside an intricately-designed house. Eyes wide, he flipped page after page, awed by the colourful dresses, the liveliness of the toys, the terror of the giant rats, the amazing transformation into the world of...

Mamoru closed his eyes, regretting having spoilt parts of the story already. He could still see the vivid colours dancing on the page, and realised he actually wanted to learn about the pictures he saw. Once again, he flipped to the first page with the cold-looking snowstorm, so real that he suppressed a shiver;he wasn't sure if it was from the imagined cold, or his anticipation to live through the story.

This time when he went through the book, it was a slow devouring of every word and picture on the pages, unable to tear himself away from the beautiful, foreign world.

His first moments of captivation.

"Ja ne, Usagi-chan," Makoto waved as the five girls separated. "Don't forget our party tomorrow night!"

"I wouldn't miss your Christmas cooking for anything," replied Usagi, starting to feel hungry already. "Mata ashita, minna!" She skipped off in the direction of her house, ignoring the chilly breeze. Though she enjoyed the company of others, Usagi loved the times when she was alone, able to drift into her own imagination without anyone interrupting. It also gave her an opportunity to ponder about many important things, such as the specifics of the manga she was going to buy next.

The thought of buying slowed her down to a walk, as she was reminded of the present dilemma she had. Despite her semi-desperation, she pretty much had in mind what she could get for her friends – a cross-stitched Einstein bookmark for Ami to encourage her to start using tasteful markers for her books; a chocolate cookbook for Makoto which was partially to ensure that Usagi will beta-taste Mako's newest experiments; a few old copies of Seventeen magazine for Minako to complete her collection of Keiko Kitagawa articles; a new set of teacups for Rei-chan, which was sort of to replace the cup Usagi accidentally cracked during one of their last meetings; and some turtle food for Motoki's beloved pet turtle, Kamekuchi-san.

But Mamoru... Even with his answer – especially with the answer he provided – Usagi was unsure of what to get him. Before today, she would have easily assumed Mamoru would be happy with a thick textbook or a classic novel, and the difficult part of getting his present would be finding out which titles he didn't already own.

"Baka Usagi," she muttered to herself, "how could you have made such an assumption about Mamoru-baka, even though it is probably true... Yada! Now you actually know he's more than just a good-looking jerk who enjoys having 'friendly arguments' with you... Oh my goodness, and now you're quoting him!"

She noticed a few passer-bys looking at her rather strangely, and decided it would be a good time to lower the arms that had risen while she tried to make her point. Sighing and slowing her pace, Usagi wrapped her coat tighter around her and thought about Mamoru's present in silence.

Something captivating... What kind of object could ever possibly captivate someone who was so seemingly perfect? The question lingering in Usagi's mind, she continued her way home.

Mamoru towelled his hair dry, trying his best to extract the moisture from his ebony locks. Tomorrow would be Christmas Eve, and again, he had no one to share it with. He was planning to spend most of his day tomorrow searching for those presents, and he hoped they would all be found before Christmas morning. He looked again at the list he had made earlier from the tags, making sure that he hadn't missed anybody's request. Setting it down on his coffee table, he made his way to his bedroom, ready for some rest.

Just as he was settled nicely under the blankets, he felt the tug from the first drawer of his bedside table. Though he had already memorised the contents of the book, the vivid colours accompanying the simplistic words of the beautiful story never failed to amaze him.

Taking his usual care, he withdrew his beloved book from its solitary place in the drawer, and held it to his face, breathing in the refreshing scent. He flipped a page, his expression softening, his lips curving slightly into a gentle smile at his clumsily written name, the ink fading, though the characters were etched into his heart.

Preparing himself for the journey he was about to embark upon, he flipped to the first page, and allowed the mellow shades of navy against glistening white snow to capture his breath.

A soft, fluffy layer of snow covered Clara's house on Christmas Eve. Inside, a party was in full swing, but one very special guest hadn't arrived. Clara watched for him at the window.

Suddenly, there was a loud knock on the door.

"He's here!" she cried, dancing over and flinging open the door. It was Clara's godfather. She gave him a big hug.

"What a warm welcome on such a chilly night!" he said, with a chuckle. Clara loved her godfather's visits. Something magical always happened when he was around.

"I have a very special present for you this year," he told Clara, as he placed a package under the tree. She eyed it all throughout dinner, and looked at it longingly when she was dragged off to bed.

That night, Clara couldn't sleep. She lay in bed thinking about her present. "It can't hurt if I just have a little peek," she thought.

Finally, Clara tiptoed downstairs. She soon found the present, tied up with a big red bow. On a ribbon there was a tag with a message.

"Merry Christmas Clara. I hope this protects you... With love from your godfather."

"I wonder what Godfather means," thought Clara. Slowly, Clara untied the bow and folded back a corner of the paper... Inside, she found a wooden nutcracker doll, dressed like a soldier.

Just then, the clock struck midnight. Clara gave an enormous yawn. In a few minutes, she was fast asleep under the tree.

Clara woke up with a start, feeling very confused. She couldn't remember where she was and her doll had vanished. She looked around and saw she was under the Christmas tree... and it seemed to be growing. But the tree wasn't growing – she was shrinking. Soon, she was as small as a mouse.

Out of the corner of her eyes, Clara thought she saw something leaping around. Frightened, she darted behind a present...

...and heard the tree rustle behind her. Clara spun around.

"Don't be afraid, Clara. I won't hurt you," said a friendly voice. Clara was astonished. Her doll had come to life!

"I'm the Nutcracker Prince," he said, with a bow, "and I'm here to protect you. The kitchen mice are plotting to kidnap you." The prince pulled out a whistle and gave a shrill blow. At once, the lid of the toy box flew open and a long line of toy soldiers marched out.

Standing in rows, they saluted the prince. "Attention!" he cried. "Clara needs our help. Prepare yourselves for battle, men. Wheel out the cannons!" Mice began to appear in the shadows. Slowly, they crept closer. Clara hid behind the prince. "Steady, men… steady," he shouted. "Wait for the signal – and FIRE!"

Huge lumps of cheese flew from the cannons and struck down several mice. Some lumps landed in the corners and the other mice scampered after them.

"Excellent work men!" roared the prince, as the last mouse vanished. But the fight wasn't over yet.

"Bravo," said an evil voice from the shadows. A mouse wearing a crown and an eye patch appeared.

"That's the Mouse King," the prince whispered to Clara.

"Is this cheese the best you can do?" jeered the king. "It'll take more than that to beat me! Now hand over the girl."

"I'd rather die!" said the prince.

"That can be arranged," the Mouse King sneered.

Soon the prince and the Mouse King were locked in battle. Their swords clanged as they danced around the room. "I'll make cream cheese out of you!" yelled the Mouse King.

"Take that you rascally rodent!" the prince replied.

Then disaster struck. The prince tripped on a lump of cheese and sprawled on the floor. Seizing his chance, the Mouse King put his sword to the prince's neck.

"I'm going to enjoy this," he said, laughing.

As the Mouse King pulled back his sword, Clara whipped off her shoe and threw it as hard as she could at his head. He fell in a heap on the floor – knocked out cold.

Clara rushed over to the prince. "Are you alright?" she cried.

"Yes – thanks to you," he said. "We must celebrate," he added as Clara helped him up. "I know just the place."

The prince led Clara to a golden sleigh behind the Christmas tree and helped her aboard. "Off we go, boys!" the prince called to his four reindeers.

As they gathered speed, the sleigh started to rise up into the air. They rode out through an open window and into the night. After some time, they came to a forest covered with crisp white snow.

"We're nearly at our first stop," the prince announced. "Hold on, we're going down!" The snow crunched under the reindeers' feet as they landed.

Just then, a beautiful lady dressed in sparkling white appeared among the trees.

"Clara, I'd like you to meet my good friend, the Ice Queen," said the prince.

"What a lovely surprise!" she said. The queen led them to her icy place, which glistened in the moonlight. Inside, icicle chandeliers hung from every ceiling.

"You've arrived in time for the dances!" said the queen, as they walked into a grand ballroom. A piano began to play and eight ballerinas dressed in silver and white twirled into the middle of the room. They twinkled like snowflakes as they spun around.

"I'll always remember this," whispered Clara to the prince, as the music came to an end. After a game of catch with the palace poodle, it was time to leave.

"Do we really have to go?" sighed Clara.

"Yes, we really do," said the prince. "There is someone else I want you to meet and we don't have much time."

Clara gasped when they reached their next stop. The trees were bursting with marshmallow blossoms, and lollipop flowers sprouted from the ground.

Then Clara saw that the mountains were topped with melted chocolate and milkshake rivers flowed from them.

"Where are we?" she asked, amazed.

"The Land of Sweets!" the prince replied. Before them stood a huge marzipan castle, decorated with all kinds of treats.

Lifting Clara from the sleigh, he set her down on the palace steps and a fanfare of trumpets rang out. At the top, the doors opened and a fairy appeared, dressed from head to toe in pink.

"Clara, this is the Sugarplum Fairy," said the prince. "She rules over the Land of Sweets."

"I hope you have a sweet tooth," said the Sugarplum Fairy, with a smile. She led them into a grand hall, where the tables were covered with chocolate cakes, cookies and candy swirls.

"Watch the wobbly chairs," whispered the prince as Clara sat down. "They're made of raspberry mousse!"

Clara ate until she thought she'd pop. After the feast, a band struck up and dancers from around the world performed for Clara. First came the dance of chocolate, and a Spanish pair spun around to snapping castanets.

Next came the exotic dance of coffee. A beautiful Arabian princess danced with smooth, swirling movements in time to soft, soothing music.

The third group of dancers had come all the way from China to entertain everyone with their tea dance. Many more dances followed, each one showing something good to eat or drink.

But the final dance was very different. A group of ballerinas, all dressed up as flowers, performed a slow waltz for Clara. Their arms unfolded gracefully like the petals of a flower, as they weaved in and out of each other.

"And now I'm afraid it's time for us to go home," said the prince sadly. With a sigh, Clara climbed into the sleigh and waved goodbye to the Sugarplum Fairy.

"Thank you for an amazing evening, Nutcracker Prince," said Clara, with a yawn. She was so tired that she fell asleep on his shoulder.

When Clara woke up, she was back under the Christmas tree and the prince was gone. Only her doll lay beside her.

"Oh, it was only a dream," she cried. "But it seemed so real."

Just then, Clara spotted the tag that her godfather had attached to her present.

"I hope this protects you," it said.

"I wonder if that means he knew the Nutcracker Prince would rescue me," thought Clara. "Maybe it wasn't just a dream..."

'Five more minutes...' Her blankets were so warm that Usagi simply had to snuggle in for a little bit longer. It was quite a rare thing for her to wake up nice and warm in the morning, because Usagi's body never seemed to stay still as she slept, resulting in the lack of blankets most mornings. But there was obviously something special about this day, Usagi thought, having woken up to her blankies tucked up nicely around her just as when she fell asleep, and the girl allowed herself to enjoy the cocoon of warmth.

As her grogginess slowly left her, realisation seeped in that today was Christmas Eve, and her last opportunity to finish her Christmas shopping – the only person who she hadn't already gotten a present for was Mamoru. Usagi groaned involuntarily and thought back to their conversation yesterday. She had hoped that something miraculous would have happened while she slept, and that she would wake up to an epiphany and be instilled with knowing the elusive something that would captivate the awesome Mamoru-baka, but perhaps awaking to both warm blankets and cathartic moments was a bit too much to ask.

Usagi took a deep breath, and was surprised to find that her heart had sped up considerably and that she was now slightly breathless, as if she had just spent the last few minutes running to school as opposed to lying in bed thinking about Mamoru. Her eyes widened as her careless thought brought to her attention the fact that she had been focusing on Mamoru, and that perhaps he was the reason behind the sudden difficulty in breathing...

Finding the last wisps of sleep completely extinguished by the intensity of her thoughts, Usagi jumped out of bed and dressed. She could smell the enticing aroma of omelettes from downstairs, and eagerly headed to the kitchen. After all, she had to make sure she was sufficiently prepared to face the battle that lay ahead, and filling her stomach always made a well-equipped Usagi!

AN: I will post the second (and final) part up on Christmas Day. Hope you've enjoyed the story so far, and have a great holiday!