It’s winter. The townscape is illuminated with colored light bulbs. The customary Christmas song is playing in the background while the town is bustling with families and merry couples. Yes, today is the Christmas Eve.
But, disregarding what day of the year it is, I shut myself in my room, seeking warmth in the blanket. I’m sheltering my body that’s shivering due to the freezing weather. Since it’s winter vacation, there’s no need for me to go to school, or even go outside to that matter. In other words, I can sleep all I want.
In order to enjoy this long vacation to the fullest, I did all of my homework on the first day. I’ve also finished the year-end cleaning early. That’s why, I can sleep leisurely without anyone to bother me. Cheers to myself for being so thorough.
“Ufufu, this is happiness.”
In addition, Mom and Saki have gone out today. Both of them are going to be home late, so I don’t have to worry about anyone coming to wake me up. I’m planning to make a Christmas cake tomorrow, but I’ll spend the eve doing nothing but sleep. And so, to build my spirits for tomorrow, good nigh——
The doorbell chimes just when I’m about to sleep.
No, I heard nothing. That was an illusion. Yes, an auditory illusion. I tell myself that it was only my imagination before I pull the blanket up to my head and concentrate on sleeping.
Okay, I heard the chime. That’s certainly my doorbell ringing. Aah, geez! I should’ve removed the battery from the intercom! It must be some newspaper salesman anyway. It’s cold and bothersome, so I’ll just ignore them. No one informed me that we’re expecting a parcel today, so I think that it shouldn’t be the delivery guy (maybe). My friends would’ve called me beforehand if they were coming to visit.
Yup. It’s been decided that no one’s home today~ so, good n——
I can hear the sound of the front door opening. This unforeseen development blows all of my sleepiness away.
(…Could it be Mom or Saki?)
They could open the door easily, so they must have used a key to come in. Well, we never gave any spare keys to anyone else… Here I thought both of them were going to be out late. Well, maybe either Mom or Saki had a change of plans and decided to come home earlier.
Footsteps draw closer to my room, and come to a stop right behind the door. What’s this?
(There goes my plan to sleep and relax.)
Knock, knock. I heard the clear knocking sounds, but I’m not answering because she’s worsened my mood. Then, the door opens. Mom wouldn’t bother to knock, so the one who came home must be my sister. I poke my head out of the blanket and peek towards the door.
“I knew it, Nee-san. You were sleeping.”
I wasn’t wrong when I said that she’s my little sister. But, I didn’t expect her to be the other little sister, the one who’s far older than me. Eh? How did she get a key to this house?
“I met Emiko-san on my way here by chance. When I said that I needed something from you, she told me that you wouldn’t leave your bed.”
“And so she gave you her key… You could’ve just called me.”
“Except that you turned off your cell phone, didn’t you?”
Ah, she’s right. I didn’t want anyone to disturb me while I’m off to the dreamland. I forgot about that. When I try to laugh it off, she sighs as gives me an amazed look.
“Anyway, Nee-san, why were you sleeping?”
“Because it’s winter vacation.”
“That’s not an answer, you know.”
“I want to sleep, and winter vacation means that I’m free to sleep around the clock~”
“Haah… You never change…”
Rumi’s expression looks clouded. I feel that a scolding is impending if this topic drags on, so I forcibly bring her attention elsewhere.
“Um, Rumi, what did you need from me again?”
“Aah, right… Haah, Nee-san will always be Nee-san…”
She looks at me with pity, then she heaves a sigh. Eh? Why does it seem like she’s utterly disappointed in me? Now I’m getting worried.
“You know that today is Christmas Eve, right?”
“Then, mind telling me what you’re planning to do for today?”
“Sleeping all day!”
When I give her my honest answer, Rumi’s straight face gradually turns dreadful. She’s seriously angry at me. Did my words rub her the wrong way? Did I step on a landmine?! I don’t get it at all.
“It’s Christmas Eve, yet you’re not going to meet Hiori-san?”
“Eh? Why? All of us are going to have a Christmas party tomorrow, so I don’t really need to meet her today… right?”
“Hiori-san, I feel sorry for you!!”
“Haah?! …It hurts! You’re choking me! Uncle! Uncle!!”
She gasps and releases my collar. I wonder if she did it without realizing it herself. It got difficult to breathe, which causes me to go into a light coughing fit. Rumi looks apologetic and says…
“S-sorry… But it’s Nee-san’s fault!!”
“I don’t get it.”
“Another minus mark for not getting what I mean.”
I really don’t understand what’s going on. What am I supposed to do here? What I want to do right now is to sleep, but if I say that out loud when she’s still in a bad temper… I think she’ll strangle me again.
“Judging from the situation, I guess you didn’t buy any Christmas presents for Hiori-san… right?”
“I did buy something for tomorrow’s gift exchange party…… but I guess that’s not what you mean, is it?”
When she glares at me like that, I end up averting my eyes. Uuh, what did I do to her?
“Nee-san, could it be that… have you ever given Hiori-san any presents for Christmas? Except for sweets.”
“Now that you mention it, I don’t think so.”
It’s not just Christmas. I think I almost never gave her any presents like that. I often give her sweets that I make myself, but other than that, I’ve never presented her with anything that lasts. In the past, I used all my allowance to buy cookwares, ingredients, and the like. Besides, I don’t know what kind of things Hiori would like.
Once, when I asked her what she wanted for a birthday present, she answered that she wanted nothing in particular. So after thinking and more thinking, I decided to give her some sweets. That’s how my presents to her became equal to sweets in my mind.
Hrm— a Christmas present…
She suddenly looks at my face up close. I step back from surprise.
“Go out somewhere with Hiori-san.”
“Eh? But it’s cold out——”
Pressured by my dreadful little sister, I reluctantly crawl out of my blanket. I wear extra clothes to keep myself warm, and I make my preparations to go out. I brace my heart for the harsh coldness that must be waiting for me the moment I step outdoors, but Rumi tells me to hurry it up instead.
I wonder why, Rumi is really terrifying today.
“And here I am, in the shopping district.”
No matter where I look, every store is having a Christmas sale and is crowded with people. Shop clerks are wearing Santa and reindeer attires, doing their best to attract customers. It looks so busy here. The crowd is denser than usual, but it looks to me that there are more couples than those who are with their families. The people walking down the street are all smiling. Their happy faces really give off the Christmas feeling. I didn’t want to come outdoors because it’s cold, but the bright mood in the town is pumping me up.
“…I was surprised when you visited without notice, and suddenly you’re taking me outside? What is this about?”
“I don’t really get it myself.”
Hiori is looking at me with cold eyes. She looks as though she wants to say something. But, no words leave her mouth, leave for the piercing gaze that she’s giving me. Uuh, the weather is cold as is, so it would be helpful if she stops chilling me even more with that look. Both my body and heart are going to freeze at this rate.
“Was I being a bother?”
“That’s… not it.”
Although Hiori didn’t reject my invitation, she didn’t look that willing, either. But, she still came along with me. I was thinking of inviting Tsubaki, too, but Rumi insisted to take Tsubaki somewhere else. So Hiori and I came here, just the two of us… Come to think of it, it’s been a long time since I last went out with Hiori like this. We would always be with Tsubaki whenever we do something.
“Alright, let’s try that store first!”
Now that we’re here, I’ll enjoy the first shopping trip with Hiori after a while. It’d be my loss if I don’t enjoy the Christmas Eve that only comes once a year.
I start walking towards the store that has become my objective, but I feel my clothes being tugged from behind. So I come to a stop.
I look over my shoulder, and I can see Hiori pinching the hem of my coat, just a tiny bit of it. I wonder what is going on. Although, when she pulls the hem of my clothes as though she’s embarrassed like this, she looks so cute that it makes my heart jump a bit.
Her voice is quiet, so it’s drowned out by the hubbub. When I look up to peer into her face, she makes a troubled expression before averting her eyes.
“Hiori, what did you…”
“It’s nothing. We should be going.”
Hiori walks ahead of me in quick steps. It seems that I’ve offended her, there’s a negative aura exuding from her back. I rack my brain in a fluster, then I chase after her and catch her left hand to stop her.
“Wah! Your hand’s cold.”
It feels as though I’m holding an ice instead. I shiver from the freezing sensation in my hand that rushes to the rest of my body. Her hand that I grab on the spur of the moment is so much colder than my own. She’s stubborn, and she’s never honest about herself. She looks as though she was fine, when she’s actually freezing all this time. If she’d get this cold, she could’ve worn gloves or something… Ah, maybe she was saying [it’s cold] earlier. I should’ve noticed much earlier.
Anyway, I squeeze her left hand to warm her up. Yup, holding hands as we walk does make it a bit warmer. Not to mention it’s warming my hand, too. It’s two birds with one stone.
“It’s cold here outside, let’s quickly go indoors and warm ourselves up.”
Her voice comes out a bit strange. How do I put it, it’s like she’s nervous, or flustered. She feels different than usual. Also, I’ve just noticed that her hand is trembling slightly.
“Hiori? Are you okay?”
But it seems that her head is in the clouds. I can see her body jolt in surprise when I call out to her in worry.
“W-what is it?”
“I mean, I’m worried because you’re acting strange.”
“There’s… nothing wrong about me.”
No matter what kind of hardships she’s facing, she would never say it out. She’s just stubborn that way. That’s why, I can’t be negligent. I have to ask her more thoroughly to clear up this anxiety.
“Really? You’re not putting up a front, right? If you’re feeling unwell, we should go h—”
“I-I told you, I’m all right!”
I think the Hiori today lets out more emotions than usual. At first, I’m under the impression that she’s shouting in anger, but I’ve never seen her face flushed so red. Then, she mumbles as though in embarrassment.
“Hinata… it’s just that…… when you hold my hand, I feel… happy…… That’s all.”
Her voice turns softer in every word she says, but I managed to hear it to the end.
“So… there’s nothing wrong… with my health.”
My mind goes white. While at the same time, my face turns red.
Heat gathers in my face. My cheeks feel so hot that I thought they might explode. My jaw drops as though it’s going to fall off, and my foolish look stays for a while. What Hiori said keeps repeating in my head, and it leaves me with no room to think about my own face. It’s not like it’s the first time I’m holding her hand. Actually, I think we’ve been holding hands just fine before. Linking hands is just a normal thing to do, or at least it should.
But, why is it that only this day, she makes that kind of expression, and says that she’s happy?
I don’t get it. I don’t get it, but I can’t calm down. There are many things that I don’t get, and my head is muddled in chaos.
“S-say something, will you?”
“Eh? Ah… um.”
How should I reply? I should just say what’s on my mind like I always do, but my mouth clamps up. I mean, I haven’t sorted out my feelings, so I have no idea how I can run my mouth. I don’t want to end up saying something she would hate.
“If you’re feeling okay, then good. It’d be awful if you catch a cold.”
I cheat by using harmless words. She looks unsatisfied with that, her expression soon returns to normal. I feel relieved.
“Then, let’s go.”
Our movements may be stiff, but we manage to walk abreast. Of course, our hands are still linked together. Her hand was cold earlier, but it’s completely warmed up now.
I wonder why.
I’m getting self-conscious when I hold her hand like this. I ask myself if my hand is soft, if I’m holding her hand too tightly, or if I’m not putting enough strength, and so on. They’re all things that I’ve never mulled over before. I’m starting to get embarrassed.
I’m getting weird today. What’s going on?
It seems that I’m going to be stuck thinking at this rate, so I change my mood by force. First things first, I’ll act like I usually do and enjoy this shopping trip with Hiori. Yup, let’s do just that.
The general store, the clothes store, the food department store, we looked around various places. Hiori and I aren’t the type to buy something superfluous, so we enjoyed window shopping. Perhaps she’s thinking the same, somehow there’s this happy look on her face. I feel that both ends of her mouth are slackening. It’s fun to look at Hiori’s expression.
Yup, going out today is a good thing. I’ll thank Rumi by mail later, for making me do this. The sky is getting dark, so maybe it’s time for us to go home.
“Hiori, it’s getting colder. Let’s go home.”
“Hm? Got any other stores you want to visit?”
She’s shaking her head to deny it. She’s hesitating to go home, so I thought there’s still something she wants to see, but I guess that isn’t it.
“Say… do you know what Tsubaki would like for a present?”
“Eh? I don’t know, I’ve never asked her about it… Although, what are you asking this all of a sudden?”
I intend to ask her casually, but she slumps her head a bit.
“I had planned to give her a Christmas present this year, but I don’t have the slightest idea what to give to her… I have never given her any proper gifts all this time, and I don’t even know where to start.”
‘Even though I’m her mother,’ Hiori mutters in self-derision, while gazing at a family who seems close. The little girl is carrying a big present box with both her hands, laughing happily as she walks. Her parents must have bought it for her. Both her parents are looking at her with gentle eyes.
“…I think you don’t need to think too hard about it, you know? Tsubaki would gladly receive anything you give her.”
“Yup, anything will do. After all, receiving a present is a blessing by itself.”
When I hear my own words, I come to realize it.
Yes, that’s right. Anything would be fine.
Actually, when I was walking around the stores, I was looking for a Christmas present for Hiori. It’s been tugging me what I should pick for her. But it seems that I was pondering about too much that I ended up not buying anything. It may be important to think about what would make them happy, but the main point is the feelings that I put along with my present. I believe that no matter what I buy for Hiori, she will receive it happily. So, if I don’t know what she wants, I just have to give her what I want to. It took me so long to realize such a simple thing.
“Let’s pick Tsubaki’s present together. We’ll choose something amazing together and surprise her.”
“Fufu, good idea.”
We look at each other and laugh. I told Hiori that Tsubaki would receive anything happily. But now that it’s come to this, I’ll pick something that will make her ecstatic. That’s why we’ll do our best together to pick her present.
After all, it’s a Christmas present for our special person.
“Thank you very much for your purchase—”
The shop clerk with the Santa hat sees us off with a smile. We’re hit by the chilling wind as soon as we leave the store, but my spirits are high enough to ignore that. Next to me, Hiori is hugging a paper bag that’s been wrapped prettily to her chest. We took our time and finally managed to pick a present for Tsubaki.
“I wonder if that child will be happy.”
“Of course she will! It’s a present that we picked after all that time thinking.”
“You have confidence.”
“Hiori, you should be more confident, too. Tsubaki’s going to be happy for sure.”
I know how much Tsubaki loves Hiori. Receiving a present from someone she loves, I think she’ll be happy just from that. When I imagine Tsubaki in that position, I can’t help but smile.
“Thank you, Hinata.”
“Ehehe, you’re welcome.”
It feels embarrassing to be thanked straightforwardly. It’s dark already, so we should hurry and go home.
In the dim street, the two of us are walking under the street lights. It’s quite late in the evening, so I can’t see anyone else around. It’s quiet. My breath looks whiter than during the day, maybe because the temperature is lower at night… Well, my hand feels warm because we’re holding our hands on our way.
“What is it?”
Squeeze. She puts more strength in her grip. Wondering what’s up, I look at her. Then, she takes out some kind of wrapping from her back and presents it to me. I’m trying to guess her intentions by peering into her face, but she’s stubbornly looking away from me. For the time being, I accept the wrapping and stares at it. Eh? What’s this?
“Your Christmas present.”
Her answer is so shocking that I can’t believe my ears. H-Hiori is giving me a present? Eh? Is this real? It’s not a prank, right? I timidly hoist up what I just received as I still can’t believe what’s happening.
“You can throw it away if you don’t want it.”
“O-of course not! I-I want it!! I won’t give it back even if you ask me to!”
“Can I… open it?”
“It’s already yours. Do as you please.”
With her permission, I carefully open the wrapping and take out its content. It’s a hoodie in my favorite color.
“T-thanks! Wow… It makes me so happy to receive a present!”
“I’ll treasure it… Ehehe, it looks warm.”
Perhaps feeling relieved after giving me her present, Hiori’s tense expression slowly loosens. Still, I didn’t expect to receive a gift from Hiori, so I feel extremely happy about it. I wonder if it’s because I’ve been a good girl this year? Yeah, right.
“…To tell the truth, I had always prepared a Christmas present for you, every year.”
This is my first time ever receiving a Christmas present from Hiori, as far as I can remember. When I was still Tsubaki, I was the only one who gave her sweets as presents on every Christmas. And I guess this is the first Christmas that we’re celebrating together after I became Hinata.
“Although I always prepared some present… I had never given anyone a present on Christmas before. I was nervous, and I didn’t manage to give it to you every time… even though you had always given me sweets that time.”
In other words, even though Hiori didn’t get to give them, she had always prepared some presents for me. I never expected that I would actually receive anything from her, so I didn’t really mind about it.
“I’m glad… I managed to give it to you this year.”
Hiori looks satisfied, and bashful at the same time.
Knowing this new thing fills my chest with warmth. Sweet emotions are welling within me.
I see. That’s how it is.
I can’t suppress my happiness as it shows up on my face. I guess my expression is rubbing Hiori the wrong way, as she pouts her mouth.
“Sweets are all that I ever gave to you. I’ve never given you anything that lasts. I had no idea what to give, and… I could only give you sweets in the end. I’m sorry.”
I take out a pouch from my pocket and holds it out to Hiori. I was waiting for a good timing to bring it up, but the day has almost ended before I know it.
“Is that… could it be…?”
“Yes, it is. This is my Christmas present for you.”
…I’d be called a dunce who can’t tell the mood if I actually bring out something else here.
Hiori opens her eyes wide, as though she can’t believe what she’s seeing. I-I think I’m getting nervous here. I’m just giving her a present, why is my heart beating so fast? She slowly takes the pouch from my hand and treats it like it’s something fragile. She’s treating my present with great care.
“Would you mind, if I open it?”
She looks tense as she starts to open the pouch carefully. I wonder if the present that I chose would make Hiori happy.
“W-what do you think?”
Why is she being silent? If she doesn’t say anything fast, I think my heart won’t be able to take it.
“Thanks. I’m really… happy.”
“Hh… I’m glad to hear that.”
She takes out my present and grasps it in her hand. Then, she smiles from the bottom of her heart. Her expression captivates me, but I got embarrassed and looks away. Still, I think I want to look at her smiling face forever.
It seems that my heart is beating even more erratically than usual. Even though the weather is cold, my face… my whole body feels hot, it’s like I’m burning. Also, my head feels a bit light… Somehow, I don’t understand what’s happening to my own body. I shake my head to stop myself from entering another endless train of thoughts. It’s not the time for that.
I stop pondering about it and looks at Hiori instead. It seems that she’s liking it better than I imagined she would. I sigh in relief, but my whole body feels limp after I let all my tension flow away. Although, I try to keep myself firm, at least so that I won’t fall over. Hrm— I never knew giving a Christmas present would be so difficult. But, if I can get to see her smiling like this again, I’ll keep doing it for sure.
“Hinata, it’s really out of my expectation that you would invite me to go shopping, and give me a present on top of that. Really, I can’t believe it.”
It’s all thanks to Rumi, though. It’s thanks to her pushing me from behind, that I could have such a fun Christmas Eve. If Rumi didn’t come today, I would’ve spent all day sleeping in my room. That would be happiness in itself, but what I’m feeling right now is many times more than that.
“That’s why…… I can’t help but expecting that to come.”
“Hm? Did you say something?”
“…It’s nothing. Never mind.”
I missed what she said, but she refuses to repeat it for me. Hrmm, now she’s got me curious.
Hiori holds my hand in silence. We separated our hands because it would be difficult to open our presents like that, but they’re now connected again. This is the first time Hiori ever initiates to hold my hand first, which takes me by surprise.
“This would be sufficient, for now.”
“Fufu, Merry Christmas.”
The meaning behind her words, the reason my heart is beating so fast, and even my excitement that seems to come out of nowhere… I don’t really get what’s going on.
…But, as long as I can see her smile, I guess.
“……Are you okay?”
“Sniffle… Mm— I’m okay.”
Hiori approaches me with a worried face, so I smile and tell her that I’m doing fine. Afterwards, she goes expressionless again, perhaps feeling relieved from my answer.
“How could you, the embodiment of health itself, catch a cold…? Is it because we went out yesterday?”
“Hm~ I don’t think so. After I got out of the bath yesterday, I went to watch the TV without wearing much clothes. I think that’s the cause.”
“Are you stupid?”
…I make up that lie on the spot, but it seems that Hiori believes it. If I said that I caught a cold because of our little outing yesterday, she would feel bad about it. I’m the one who invited her in the first place. Besides, my cold might have been caused by something completely unrelated.
“Cough, cough! …Ugh— my throat hurts…”
My symptoms include headache, palpitation, and fever. It seems that the strange things that I felt were signs of a cold. Yesterday, I pondered about many things, but I couldn’t arrive at any conclusions. Now that I’ve understood the cause, I guess it doesn’t matter anymore. Actually, I feel my head cleared up from that.
“Hiori, um, I”m doing fine here, so you should celebrate the Christmas party with everyone else.”
The Hayase+Kurasaka family Christmas party is ongoing downstairs. Someone proposed to cancel it because I got sick, but there’s no way I’d like that to happen. I want them to have fun without having to mind me, and I managed to convince them to hold the party, although reluctantly. It’s unfortunate that I can’t take part in it, but I’d hate it if the party got cancelled because of me. Hiori went along with the party at the beginning, but she came upstairs to nurse me after a short while. Even though I’m doing fine since my fever has gone down a lot, and I’ve drunk the medicine, too.
“I want to stay here, just a little longer.”
“You’ll make Tsubaki feel lonely, you know?”
“Shush, just be quiet.”
She knows that I can’t go against her if she coerces me like that. She’s being unfair.
“……Do you feel like having anything?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Do you feel unpleasant anywhere?”
“I’m feeling much better than this morning. I’m fine.”
“If you say so.”
Ooh— Hiori is acting kinder than usual. Instead of the cool remarks that I’m accustomed to, everything she says today seem a bit gentler. Since she’s nursing me so earnestly, I might want to get sick again every now and then, I think.
I’m getting sleepy, maybe the medicine is kicking in. I would give in and sleep if it was any other day, but I want to look at Hiori for just a bit more right now. My eyelids grow heavy, and my field of vision gets narrower. I intend to fight against the drowsiness, but it’s just too strong. I’ve almost gone to the dreamland when I feel something cold being placed on my forehead. That wakes me up a bit. It was Hiori placing her hand on my forehead, checking my temperature.
……Her hand feels cold and pleasant.
Seeking more of the chilly sensation, I grab her wrist without thinking. Yup, her hand does feel cold.
I pull her hand towards me, which catches her off guard. She staggers and ends up falling on top of me. Our faces are really close to each other. I can’t see well due to my blurry eyes and drowsiness, but I can see her beautiful face right in front of me. Her forehead is pressed against mine, but it doesn’t feel that cold. Actually, it feels to me as though she’s getting hotter than me.
Her cheeks are flushing red, like an apple. How cute. I wanted to get more of that cold sensation at first, but my objective has changed midway. Hiori is frozen in place, and I take that moment to bring my face closer. My head is in a daze, and I don’t even know what I’m trying to do. I’m simply letting my instincts do the work for me.
“H-Hina… hey… wait…!!”
Words that barely form a sentence escape her mouth, tickling me as her sighs hit my face. Thinking to cover that mouth of hers, I bring my lips closer and——
I reached my limit.
In the midst of my dimming consciousness, I feel that I heard her agonized voice.