It was getting late, the street lights flickering on one by one as he walked slowly home from the department store, feeling the deepening ache between his shoulderblades throb dully with each and every step through the puddles left from rain the previous night.
The pain from work still bothered him every night on the long walk back home, as the long years of hard fighting and busywork without so much as a simple leg stretch were catching up to him now that he had a desk job.
He just wasn't used to being so idle, to just sitting on his butt for hours on end, and yet here he was. Funny how things worked out, wasn't it? One day you're out there, taking down the shadow monsters just as quickly as they spawned, the next you're wasting away at a desk job, watching your gut slowly fatten into a beer belly you were far too young for yet.
He had to bring in as much as he possibly could for the next couple of years, just until they could afford to move out of the two bedroom mess they were currently dealing with to a much larger apartment out on the Terrance.
"Mmm... damn holiday," he muttered sourly, as he passed the front windows of Kanemaki's department store, each one a more lavish display for the Yule season than the last, with moving figures and dozens of twinkle lights. The multi coloured bulbs flashed across the sidewalk in garish pools of light, painting him in neon hues of greens and reds as he slinked past, hurrying to the cool shadows of the sidewalk, his eyes downcast.
A radio played Yule songs from some open window nearby as he passed the first row of houses before the station, the jaunty carol warning him to "be kind and nice, don't let your heart be ice, or Yule will be long and frosty", whatever the actual hell that was supposed to even mean. He'd never liked the Yule carols, with their overly peppy singers and sappy instrumentals, nor their heavy handed messages of guilt for not being a perfect angel all year long.
Out of all the years, this was the one he cared about the Yule days the least, as his small, fractured family did their best to hang in there following everything that had happened over the past three years.
Together, they'd been through more than most people dealt with in their entire lifetime, battles and losses souring their memories along with the warm glories of victories and friendships. All four of them had seen and done far too much for anyone one person to deal with, and now was time to pay the piper, so to speak.
Things had just been different since the great darkness came, when the monsters taking the land for almost a year. Nothing was exactly the same anymore, and never would be again. That was all there was to it, and all that could be done was to pick yourself up and move on.
As the snow started to slowly fall around him, the white flakes tangling in the spikes of his hair, he sighed, tugging his collar up to keep the cold from freezing his neck, trying to banish these dark thoughts from his mind.
He stood in the chilly night air, watching as the tram slowly pulled up to the station curb, the doors sliding open to warm light, waiting to take him home.
After everything he'd been through, he thought, stepping onto the crowded tram, irritatedly sliding between excited holiday shoppers chattering about their last minute purchases in shrill, tired tones, after everything they'd been through, even with the usual holiday annoyances, the lack of money, the pain he gritted his teeth and bore... after all of that, he still had his family, unorthodox as it was.
For the first time that day, as the tram began its winding path along the tracks back to Primerose Street, Lea allowed a small smile to creep onto his lips, as he watched the snowflakes patter against the window, smearing the glass with patterns of frost.
"Put it by the window, what the heck're you doin'? Don't put it back there, no one can see the gosh darned thing!"
She frowned, hands on her hips, glaring as angrily as she could manage at the kid as he almost dropped the tree again, trying valiantly to drag it across the floor of the diner to the front window. She couldn't help but wince as a fragile ornament slipped off its branch, glass shattering thinly on the tile.
"Oh for the love of..."
She strode forwards, gently prying the boy's hands off the tree with a sarcastic smile. "I'll do it myself - you're just gonna break everything the way you're goin' on."
The kid, a local farm boy of about seventeen, blushed, looking at anything but her. She gathered the tree in her arms, wincing at the scratch of needles on her skin.
She spotted the boy sneaking looks at her backside, and frowned, turning smartly on her heel, the sole scuffing on the title of the diner.
"Gotta be 21 to ride the rides here, kiddo," she quipped, not having to see his face to know it had just gone even redder.
She wasn't even remotely serious, of course: she just enjoyed teasing people who couldn't keep their eyes in their damned heads.
The tree took her awhile to drag across the floor of the station, her efforts costing the tree a few pretty baubles here or there, but it shined like a new penny once it was in place in the window.
Cindy smiled to herself, watching the brightly coloured lights twinkle off the shiny sides of the ornaments, thinking back on the Yule's now gone, and on the last one she'd spent with Cid before his passing. It had been quiet, only a small tree for the counter, a few small presents shared between them after midnight. He'd died only three days later, clutching the blanket she'd spent weeks sewing together from coloured strips of cloth.
First the long year of darkness, then the loss of the only family she had left. It had taken its toll on her, as had rebuilding the shop from scratch after it had been taken in the war, the Imperials scorching the land like it was nothing, destroying everything but the sign she still kept on the pole out front, cracked and faded, but still working, still lighting the darkness. She'd added a diner, a rest area, and started back on the track she'd been on, the only one she knew.
Cindy sniffed, wiping her nose with the back of her hand as she took a deep breath, and bustled off to finish up the oil change she'd been knee deep in before this foolish decorating business had demanded her attention.
Outside, a few stray snowflakes fluttered past the window, as the first real snow fall of Winter slowly inched closer.
The waves crashed against the wet sand just like they had for so many years now, unending and unchanging, despite the years that had passed by since the last time he'd stood here, quietly watching the sun lower over the horizon.
He watched the last orange rays sink below that distant line that felt like it marked the end of the world, a sad smile for all that had gone by on his face as he shuffled his feet in the damp sand, feeling it squish thickly between his toes.
It reminded him of his childhood, and of the joyful ignorance he'd had then, before the night of the great, black, terrible storm that had changed his life forever.
They'd spent so many hours here, wasting time under the hot sun, without a care in the world. The night of the storm had changed all that, sending them on a course they could never come back from once it was started.
The world falling to darkness only a scant year ago... that had been new, terrifying business he was still having trouble processing. The details were scarce, but it was well known of the sacrifice the world had suffered to right itself, and of the losses the royals had suffered.
Things like that didn't reach the islands; the people here didn't want to know. They ignored it, lived their lives in blissful unawareness as much as possible. It made him sick sometimes, to think the whole world was covered in evil, monsters, and death, and the people of the islands just kept to their homes until it was over.
With a shuddering intake of breath, he turned away from the sunset, beautiful as it was, to head back up the beach towards the dock, his boat bobbing gently on the waves, waiting faithfully for him.
Coming out here had been a mistake, he thought, unlocking his oars to row back to the main land, the wind picking up slightly, with a cool chill making him shiver as the last golden rays of light bled out over the water.
The memories of before threatened to overwhelm him again, as he shivered once more in the chilly air, regretting not bringing a coat as he began rowing as quickly as he could to get away from the play island, to get back home in time for Yule dinner.
His mother was making her famous roasted ham with gravy, and that was something he didn't want to miss for anything in the world.
With the wind at his back and the thought of ham and mashed potatoes warming his belly, Riku swallowed back the old fears, locking his darkest memories back in their safe boxes in the back of his mind one by one, and rowed back to the docks of the Destiny Islands.
"You're in pain."
Lea chuckled at this, then winced at the sharp jolt racing up his spine, quick as a stab with a stiletto. "Don't make me laugh, Isa, ow..."
"My apologies," Isa replied, lips pressing into a thin line. "Your work... You know I don't like it. If you'd let me just do some work around town, take a day job or- "
"I said no, Iz," Lea snapped, falling all too easily into an old nickname from the past, like he always did when angry. "It's my fault what happened, so the least I can do is take my penance for it."
An emotion something like barely hidden anger mixed with sadness flashed fleetingly across Isa's face, his one good eye closing for a moment.
The other was hidden behind his eyepatch, hiding the socket away from the world in deep shame. Whether it was his or Lea's was hard to tell.
When the old scars crisscrossing his face were torn open again during the fierce battles in the Keyblade Graveyard, the infections that set in were too great to save the eye, something Lea had blamed himself for, even now.
Few places would've hired Isa in the first place, but, with the doctor's warning of the infection returning should even a little bit of dirt or grit manage to get into the socket, Lea took it on himself to keep their strange little foundling family afloat, and Isa safe at home.
The five foot tree on the side table blinked accusingly, the small pile of simply wrapped presents making guilt rise up like bile in back of Lea's throat that he couldn't do more for them, for his family...
Roxas and Xion deserved better than this, he thought, sourly. A few cheap presents, a tiny tree with dime store ornaments, second hand tinsel. They deserved the best Yule night money could buy after everything they'd been through.
Isa let the subject drop for now, moving to their small kitchenette to check on the ham roasting in the oven, making sure it was staying properly basted and not drying out.
Isa would bring up the old fight again before too long, and Lea would just have to deal with it when it came. He was tired, now, and needed to change.
He shuffled into the small bathroom to change out of his work clothes, stopping to stare at his reflection in the smudged mirror for a long moment, taking in his too thin chest, the ribs poking out his sides. He looked like crap, and he felt it most days.
But then he thought of how far he'd come, of how lucky he'd been in the long run, now that the battles and schemes were over. Most could only dream of seeing the things he'd seen, let alone coming back alive to tell the tale.
Lea sometimes wondered about the worlds, and how they were getting along these days, deciding eventually it wasn't his business anymore: he couldn't even summon his old weapons, flames only flickering at little at his command when they'd once roared like rabid beasts with a flick of his wrist.
He was getting old; they all were.
"We're home!" Roxas called, as usual overly peppy, despite the late hour. He and Xion were taking cram courses at school, not getting home until late every night.
He could hear them talking to Isa, probably about their day and their studies, and felt the familar flicker of warmth in his heart knowing they were both fine, and home where they belonged.
The scent of cooked meat filled his nose, as Lea smiled at his reflection, if a little tiredly.
Maybe things weren't so bad, after all.
"Next week, we'll wrap up the tutorial on making your own ornaments out of things you probably have laying around the house!"
She smiled, brightly, showing off the rounded bauble she'd made from glitter, pipe cleaners, and some various odd and ends, holding it up so the camera could see. The comments about how gorgeous and well thought out the whole thing was flooded by, her tip jar tinkling dozens of times in a row from over enthused viewers tipping her five to even fifty dollars at a time.
"Thanks for watching my stream, guys, and may your heart be your guiding key to your own dreams!"
To her own ears, her voice was shrill and peppy, a fake tone no one really used outside the introduction to an online video. She smiled for her plentiful audience, switching the livestream off outside the line of sight of the lens so no one saw her expression fall, her head aching from the lights she had to use to keep her desk lit well enough to show on camera.
Positive comments flooded the stream chat, along with wishes for a fantastic Yule, emoji's of Kenny The Crow and Shiva The Snow Queen, mega m popular fast food mascots, doing annoying little dances as they flitted by the chat reel. The praise was the same, always yammering about her flawless makeup, her perfect hair, and how much they loved her now classic catchphrase.
She switched off the glare of the desk lights, sighing as she ran a brush through her long hair, feeling the extensions loosen and pull out. Her long hair suddenly became only shoulder length , and a much lighter red than it was before.
Everything about the internet these days was completely fake, sadly, so she'd just kept up with the times to stay popular, to keep bringing in the numbers to keep her channel alive and in the top ten. She was the second highest rated beauty and craft on the Gummitubes, and she planned to stay there, no matter what it took. The income payed her rent, kept her in nice shoes.
Marie, her little white kitten, meowled for her food, batting at a lock of the fake hair that had fallen to the floor.
She smiled at her antics, if a bit tiredly, reaching down to fix the pink ribbon around Marie's neck before moving to her small kitchen to get her meal ready, her own dinner of apple bread and soup nearly done, the pot bubbling cheerily.
This whole internet business was still new, only really getting going three years before, but those in the know jumped on it hard and fast. Finding herself with nothing much else to do following all the battles and adventures, she decided to start a Gummitube for fun, slowly growing it to what it was today, enjoying a healthy sack of munny each month, and adoring fans clinging to her every word.
Still... she couldn't keep the growing loneliness from eating away at her heart, day by day, knowing this wasn't what anyone had wanted for her future. She'd done so much, been to so many fantastic lands and worlds.
Now she was here, in the hazy forever midnight unique to Traverse Town, hiding away from the rest of the world with her cameras and her makeup, only seen by her audience, who clung to a fake persona she had created.
She knew people clung to escapism more than ever before, trying to forget the long year of darkness and monsters, cyber celebrities skyrocketing to popularity, becoming even more famous than movie stars.
As she watched the first few flakes begin to fall outside the small window over the sink, pattering across the cobblestones of the square below, Kairi sighed deeply, thinking back on everything that had led her to that exact moment, wondering if it had all been worth it in the end.
She wasn't happy, not as much as she could be; she sometimes missed the islands, missed the slower life she'd had for so many years. Life her was simpler, but her time was eaten up by streaming, editing her videos taking hours alone, whole weekends devoted to perfecting her channel's daily upload schedule.
Marie was pawing at her leg, meowing for the bowl of food in her hand. She started as the oven started dinging harshly, announcing her bread had finally finished baking.
Kairi jolted back to reality, shaking away the cobwebs of her dark thoughts, and set about serving dinner for them both.
"Hold your horses, I'm comin', I'm comin'!"
The bell rang again, the harsh buzz making Cindy wince; the oil change was taking a lot longer than she'd ever planned, the whole car looking more and more like it was on its way to the scrap heap. Someone bothering her in the middle of her work already set her on edge, but them ringing the damn bell over and over had her fuming.
Stripping off her oil stained gloves in the diner's kitchen, she groaned, trying to get at least get the worst of the oil off her face, unknowingly smearing it across her forehead.
The snow had picked up while she'd been working, the front windows frosted over as the heat of the diner contrasted the chill in the air. She could see someone was out there, waiting on the stoop with their hand on the bell, but she couldn't tell who it was from here.
"Alright, would ya quit it? It ain't gonna make me move any faster."
The clear annoyance in her voice made the figure shift uncomfortably, but at least they stopped ringing the bell, so that was something, anyways.
"It's Yule, ya know. What's this about messin' with a girl so late on a night like this, huh?"
Her voice was shriller than she'd normally like (nobody liked a shrieking harpy), but it had been a long day, and she was exhausted.
"Sorry," a voice said, giving her pause, "I made it as soon as I could, ya know. Traffic was brutal."
Cindy took a shuddering breath, feeling the prickle of tears threaten: "M-Mac? Mac, boy, is that you at my door right now?"
"Naw, it's the ghost of the king," The voice mocked, the donkey braw of laughter that followed making the threatened tears trickle down her cheeks, as she stumbled to the door.
The man on the doorstep was tanned from his long hours working in the sun, his blond hair pulled back roughly into a ponytail, stubble the same bleached yellow coating his strong jaw. He had a rugged, homegrown look to him, but he was still quite a looker, with his easy going smile and charming demeanor making it easy to look past his farmboy roots.
Although more lined than she remembered, his blue eyes were still kind, and, when she leaned in to kiss him, his lips were still as warm as they were in her memories of life back home on the farm, when she'd stole her first kiss from him behind the barn one warm afternoon.
"I can't believe you're here," she managed, wiping at her eyes. "God, I'm cryin' like a damn little girl..."
Mac chuckled, taking her hand in his, squeezing it. "Been travelin' for a week to get here," he replied, smiling. "But it was worth it to see yer face again, Cindy."
"Ya big idiot," she laughed, playfully slapping his chest. "I was in the middle of a oil change, ya know."
"I know," he laughed, wiping her forehead with his palm, smirking at the black stain. "Ya need some help, kid?"
"I ain't been a kid for years, ya idiot," she snapped, unable to keep the smile out of her voice. "But I could use a bit of your dumb ox strength with this car."
"Bring it on," Mac declared, "we got this, kid."
Cindy smirked, slapping his chest again, as they headed into the garage to whip the offending car back into shape before Yule break ended.
Riku could tell he was late: the big picture window of the dining room was lit with a warm glow, but the drawn curtains keeping him from seeing anything from the street, as his mother liked to do during gatherings to keep everyone's attention on the meal and conversation.
Everyone was gathered there, his mother's famous ham obviously ready for carving.
He'd catch hell for being late, that was for sure; Relda, his mother, was determined that every moment of Yule night was spent with family, even if all they did was sit around and gossip about goings on around the island.
Technically, Riku hadn't exactly been given permission to be gone so long; when he'd left, the ham had only just gone into the oven, and the sun was high in the sky.
Now it was night, the streetlights coming on up and down the street, and those closed curtains told him how much hell he was going to catch for missing the start of Yule.
He tried to sneak in, easing the door open as quietly as possible, but Relda was having none of it.
"Riku," she said, coldly, standing in the doorway of the dining room with her arms crossed over her apron, a scowl pulling her lips down, smudging the corners of her lipstick.
"I know, mom, I know," he sighed, hating the guilt he felt for disappointing her; ever since his father had left them so many years before, Riku was unoffically 'the man of the house', something he deeply hated.
Relda sighed, shaking her head. "It's alright... it's Yule. I can't stay angry at you."
His cousin, Peyton, smirked from her place at the table, neatly smoothing back her long red hair, reveling in her superiorty over him for being on time.
Despite being 17, older than her by two years, he stuck his tongue out at her as he took his seat. Aunt Gemma frowned, looking down at him through the riduclous pin-nez she insisted on wearing right on the edge of her long nose, but he ignored her. He didn't want to argue with her during dinner.
Relda carved the ham for them all, each of them getting a nice big piece of it, along with generous helpings of beans and potatoes. A two tiered chocolate cake waited for after dinner, glazed with white chocolate roses and pink candied buttons.
"Will you say the grace, Riku?" Relda asked, smiling kindly. Her prior anger was gone, as she looked at her perfectly laid out table, her small but happy family waiting to begin the Yule meal.
"Alright," Riku agreed, folding his hands on his lap, bowing his head. His silver hair fell over his eyes, but he ignored it.
As he said the Yule prayer, one said every year at their Yule dinner, the first few flakes of snow began to fall outside, dusting the road in white.
It was a good dinner, after all, even if he was a little bit late.
The book she was reading was one of the more popular novels on the market, and she was struggling to make it through it. She was about to call it a night when the call came, waking her from her doze. She scrambled for her Gummiphone, knocking several bottles of makeup off her bedtable, wincing as the fragile glass shattered on the floor.
Marie opened one sleepy eye from her cushion across the room, meowing tiredly before rolling on her side, going back to sleep instantly.
"Who'sit," she stammered, rubbing the sleep grit from her eyes with one palm. "Who's callin'?"
Her voice sounded like she'd swallowed a dead frog, as she peered at her small alarm clock: 3 am? Anger burned through her, as she processed this: What sort of idiot called at 3 am on Yule night? She had half a mind to-
That single word, said in a soft voice that spoke volumes of the time difference between them, was enough to make her sit up in bed, mouth dropping open.
"S-Sora? Oh, my god, it's been-"
How long had it been? Six months? A year? She couldn't remember, and hated herself for it.
"Yeah, it's men," he said, simply. "Sorry it's so late... I had..." He trailed off, his throat clicking through the phone. "I had a lot going on lately."
"No, no, it's-mhmmm!" She cleared her throat loudly, her voice still sticky with sleep. "It's fine, Sora, really. I'm just happy to hear your voice. It's been a long time, you know. I've missed you."
Sora had been gone for so long, she couldn't even remember life with him much anymore: they hadn't been in contact at all, not even online or on the Gummiphone. She'd missed hearing him, although she'd never admit it.
"Well, I just thought I'd call to let you know about it, before someone else did," he said, vaguely.
"Tell me about what?" She asked, frowning. "Sora? Is something wrong? Tell me!"
There was a deep sigh on his end, then a sort of muffled rustling as Sora covered the phone with his hand for a moment, speaking to someone on his end before replying to her. "You know the funerals were just held here yesterday," he said, tensely.
"Well, yes," she allowed, a bit confused at this: everyone knew about the royal funerals for Sora's brother, King Noctis, and his bride to be, the oracle Lady Lunafreya. It was common knowledge, of course, as the whole nation had mourned along with Insomnia and Tenebrae, as now the single remaining member of the royal family, Sora, had to take care of things in the palace for a little while, until something could be done about the now vacant throne.
Kairi had hear rumors the throne might revert to Sora by default, making him the king. That idea has been too strange for her to really think about too much, since she had enough trouble processing her own status as princess, if unofficial, and now ex-Keyblade Wielder.
"Well..." He hedged, blowing out a puff of air that made the phone crackle. "You see...uhm..."
"Sora, don't beat around the bush... out with it!" She laughed, assuming it was something silly he was just embarrassed about. "I hate it when you do this."
The next words out of his mouth was the last thing Kairi would have ever imagined: her mouth dropped open shock, as she dropped the phone to bed.
"Well... you see... Noctis and Luna? Kairi... they're not dead, not really. Everyone was wrong about what happened to them back in Altissia. Luna... well, see, she's back, she's alive. She says things aren't over yet."
There was a pause, his voice excited, breathless.
"She says Noctis can come back, too. But we'd have to go on another journey."
Another pause, as Kairi felt her heart stutter. "We have to get everyone back together... it's going to take all of us to bring Noctis home."
It's Yule everywhere tonight, with many different stories unfolding all at once across this big, wide world. It's a time for giving, for forgiveness, and for looking forwards to the dawning future with happiness in your heart.
The world has seen a lot of things in the past few years, but now it is time to look forward to the coming days with hope. New stories would unfold, given time, and new journeys would be taken to new horizons, with old friends coming back after far too long a time away. Exciting, terrible things, beautiful, affirming things, and things that would stretch bonds to the breaking point before stitching them back again. All of this was in store, someday.
Yes, it's Yule everywhere tonight, but it is here we must leave our stories for awhile. We'll return to them someday, when the time is right for us to hear more, but for now the hour grows later, the air grows chillier outside, and we've all our own celebrations to attend to.