Author's Notes:

Uzumaki-sama: Two people e-mailed me asking if I was going to write anything for Christmas. I hadn't thought about it, but the more I did, I decided it would be fun to try something. In the early stages of planning, Jess and I decided we should write it for one of our really close friends, Dark Ki. So Ki, this is all for you, and we hope it cheers you up!

Vash's Girl: Susie just about summed it up. We had a lot of fun planning this, and we hope you readers will enjoy reading it.

Disclaimer:

Nothing belongs to us except Izzy (VG's cat), Artemis and Rairune, Seiya and San, and the plot (or lack thereof). Sion is from The Bouncer.


For Dark Ki—

Much love, and Happy Holidays!


Part OneMr. Grumpy

--

There was a house that resided on a quiet hill over-looking its old-fashioned town. It was large, two floors, with broad windows and marble white steps that led up to an oaken door, which had miraculously withstood all types of horrible weather. A chimney, dormant for years, jutted out from the sloped roof, now a home for birds who hadn't quite made it to the South for winter. Curtains, thick and white, hid the interior of the house from view, leaving it something of a mystery.

It seemed that no one occupied this lonely place. Children had crept to the back, thinking that maybe there would be some signs of life on the porch, but there was only a dead garden... left unattended for as long as the chimney had been and forgotten by time.

Vines, long gone brown and brittle, climbed the stone walls surrounding the back of the house. It was said by the elders in the town that these were once roses, beautiful red roses, but now it was hard to believe. Nothing grew here but weeds...

A stone fountain resided in the very center of the garden, covered in mold and grime. Upon its once white surface were more of the rose vines, snaking into the fountain itself. But the murky water within it had frozen by the coming of frost, and now snow covered everything, gleaming and untouched in the dying sunlight.

The children imagined that the garden must have been very beautiful once, and that the house had been occupied by a warm, loving family. But who occupied it now? The only signs of life stemmed from the fact that hired workmen shoveled the driveway of snow... And occasionally light crept from behind the heavy curtains. But that was all. Nothing more, nothing less.

It was sad. And the lonely aura of the house kept curious children from venturing too close. They were too frightened as it were. That place... It seemed full of dark secrets.

But it wasn't. Just a lonely, rich boy... And the aura came from him.

Night was beginning to fall on the small town as Riku climbed up the steps to his house—never his home—tucking his car keys in his pocket and sighing. His breath came out in a long stream of clouds before him, almost as if he were smoking a cigarette, and he shivered in the cold. But he was now used to it. The winters were always harsh here, and he had grown up in them.

His booted feet thuddedheavily along the cleared pavement as he neared the door. Yawning a little and withdrawing his keys, he sleepily unlocked his house and shut the door firmly behind him before replacing all the locks.

Riku rested his forehead on the cool surface of the door for a moment, taking a deep, quiet breath, and then yawned again, turning to the heat system and flicking the knob up.

His house, as usual, was deathly silent, swamped in thick shadows and the dim light pressing against the curtained windows. His eyes flicked over the dark living room, the furniture nothing but mere shapes to his tired eyes, before he started down the hallway, not bothering to take his coat and boots off or turn on the lights.

Bed... Riku thought wearily, eyelids drooping. He just wanted to climb into his warm, comfortable bed and fall asleep. Maybe, with luck, he'd sleep through tomorrow—Christmas Eve—and all of Christmas... and perhaps not wake up until the New Year. Seemed like a swell idea to him.

Maybe he was over-working himself? Not wanting to stay at the house all vacation, Riku had paid a man to give him an extra class during Christmas break. And when he wasn't there, he was in the library, studying for his regular classes, but by request, his professors had told him the next chapters and assignments they were going to be covering. And he was a wonderful student, never falling behind in his work and acing everything they covered, so there hadn't been a hesitation in the giving the information to him.

Nothing satisfied Riku these days. Nothing at all. His life was school. He didn't even know where he was going with it, he just knew he was going somewhere, and anywhere was better than here.

Upon reaching the kitchen, Riku placed his keys on the counter and reached for the mail. His housemaid always brought it in for him, tidied up the house, and then left again. The most Riku ever saw of her was when he was paying her monthly check. And then he was always away from the house during the day. He wasn't too worried about theft—she was an elderly lady and seemed nice enough, and it wouldn't even mater if she did get the notion in her head.

Nothing mattered anymore.

Riku sifted through his mail, and his brows furrowed upon reaching a card from his mother. Setting the rest of the mail down, he moved his thumb along the envelope flap, tearing the paper cleanly. Lips pressing into a thin line, he withdrew the Christmas card.

A flimsy Christmas tree decorated the card's surface, nothing carefully drawn or thoughtful, merely standing there against a plain white background. And upon opening the card, cursive black script read "Happy Holidays." That was it. No handwriting from his parents, no "Mother and Father," not even a speck of stray ink stating that they had at least thought to put the tip of a pen to the card.

Somehow, Riku wasn't very surprised. Nor was he surprised to see the check tucked into the crease of the card itself. Oh, but he was angry. Yes, he was very angry.

Breath hissing through his now gritted teeth, Riku took the check and the card, not even bothering to read the amount of money his parents had so graciously given him, and cleanly ripped the items in half.

And then to shreds.

Riku let the torn pieces of paper fall to the floor in a flurry of white and stormed out of the kitchen and into the living room, brushing past the marble coffee table and to the windows blocking the view of outside. He grabbed them, ripping them open, and glared out into the snow-covered front yard.

Who did his parents honestly think they were?! They might as well be Satan's fallen angels, come to make his life miserable on Earth. He was their mere puppet, expected to come whenever they summoned, forced to attend dull balls and parties, known for his fake smile of obedience. To the outside world, they looked like such a beautiful family, picture perfect, but this wasn't so.

Riku absolutely despised them. He wanted to wrap his hands around their prim and proper throats and throttle them! Just looking at them, hearing their awful voices, made him want to yell. To scream. To claw at the dark steel bars that surrounded him until he went positively insane. He was going insane!

Suffering through his mother's false smiles as she petted his hair, speaking with poison underlying her every word. Her empty eyes, her skinny, sharp body that had never been a haven of welcoming him with open arms. Her long hair that he wanted to strangle her with...!

And his father, with all his overwhelming expectations. He was expected to attend the finest schools, to marry a rich, beautiful woman and have her produce offspring, to join the field of law and rise through the ranks of justice. Hell, if he asked for it, Jordan Daemonson could provide the road to presidency. It made him nauseous just thinkingabout it!

He could hear their voices in his head, echoing loudly and thrumming along his skull, berating, scoffing, never offering a kind, encouraging word to their son. And after all that he had been through for them, he only received a check and a hideous, uncaring Christmas card in return. If he had wanted only their money, would he have been here, wallowing in this dismal hell?! His life was miserable, boring, lonely...

He wanted nothing more than to be free!

The distant Christmas lights glared at Riku, taunting him with soft cackles that only his tormented ears could hear, blurry and reminding him that he would never ever experience the family joy of spending holidays together. There wouldn't be any singing Christmas carols and gathering around his father as he played the piano. No decorating a real tree, putting so much love and effort into it. No sitting before the warm fire and sipping hot cocoa. No tearing into Christmas presents and laughing with glee.

Dizzy, Riku slumped to his knees and closed his eyes, placing a hand to his forehead.

No warm smiles or embraces. No encouraging chuckles from his childhood. No words of comfort. No building snowmen. No Christmas decorations. No cookies or milk. No... No Santa Claus. Nothing. There was nothing at all.

Riku hated his parents. And he hated Christmas, too.

I've got to get out of here... the twenty-two-year-old thought weakly, eyes fluttering open and glancing at his pocket watch as he pulled it out of his coat. It was five o' clock, meaning that that café on the corner of town was probably still open. And he could maybe sit there for a while in the cozy atmosphere and get some peace.

At least... He hoped it would be decent enough. He had never been there before, but he had eyed it on occasion, and...

Getting to his feet, Riku rushed to the door without bothering to grab his keys. Blast it all, he thought as he opened all the locks. He'd walk. After all, the stinging cold of outside was nothing compared to the frigid ice wrapped securely around his heart.

--

Ding-a-ling!

The shop bell on the door happily jingled as the café's new patron almost cautiously entered, not really knowing what to expect, green eyes darting around to study the entire interior for a brief moment. A few customers were present, murmuring quietly in their booths to each other over their steaming mugs of brown liquid. Two employees stood at the front of the cozy café, both brunette and good-looking, one talking animatedly as the other pretended to listen as he read a magazine.

Large bows of red velvet dotted the rafters overhead, twinkling strings of candy cane tinsel and snowy white lights draped lazily around them, creating a warm crimson glow. Soft, classical Christmas music greeted him as soon as he stepped inside, the door ringing behind him as it clicked shut, trapping him in this envelope of warmth. His body suddenly felt much more awake as he stood there, inhaling the sweet smell of muffins, syrups, and cream mixed with the sharp tang of coffee and chocolate.

Upon hearing the new customer enter, the upbeat worker resting on the counter immediately hopped to his feet and spun towards the entrance, lips pulled into a welcoming grin that spoke of the so-called Happy Holidays without ever uttering those two cursed words.

Without missing a beat from his previous conversation with the other worker, he chirped, "Hi, welcome to the Red Nocturne Café! Name's Sora and I'll be with ya in a sec!"

And while the other employee went back to reading his magazine, the spunky brunette named Sora continued on with the one-side conversation.

"—so Sion goes tearing out of the room on his stubby legs, giggling at the top of his lungs and waving my boxers like some sort of lunatic, hehe, and—hey, are you even listening, Leon?"

"Mm-hm."

Riku watched them for a second before deciding to seat himself, choosing a booth relatively near the door, away from the rest of the patrons. The Christmas music seemed loud here, but he decided he'd put up with it instead of forsaking such a nice window view of the snowy street outside. He slid onto the cushiony leather seat, giving a grateful sigh as he began brushing off the white flakes of ice that had gathered on his shoulders. As he was shaking out his hair, the employee named Sora, still talking to his co-worker, made his way over to Riku's booth.

"—so I chased the brat, in my nuddy pants because I had nothing else, and there standing in the hallway... was the frickin' mailman."

Despite his co-worker's reticence and apparent disinterest, Sora laughed for both of them, coming to a stop in front of Riku just as he finished his story.

"God, I was so embarrassed!"

Riku glanced up just in time to see Sora lowering his face, their eyes meeting for the first time. He saw the energetic brunette's smile fade just a little upon seeing Riku's drab expression—as though it was a crime to be depressed and moody two days before Christmas—but he didn't particularly care what people thought about him, especially the worker of some non-commercial café whom he'd never meet again.

Lifting a silver eyebrow at the café worker, Riku studied him for a moment, taking in his friendly appearance with some skepticism. His cute face had just a tiny bit of babyfat left, with smiling eyes of a blue that reminded Riku of summer, not this dreary winter setting. Underneath what seemed to be the standard uniform of this place—just a white open-collared shirt tucked into black work slacks, and a black full-body apron with a red lettering that simply said "Red Nocturne"—the guy's slim, reedy body looked like it couldn't lift a standard-sized bag of ice. Still, he seemed to be the perfect employee to work during the holidays, like the type who amazingly never ran out of laughter and encouraging words; this, along with the radiant smile that seemed to reflect everything that Riku was not, was what deepened Riku's frown.

Sora was unfazed by Riku's foul mood, however, and set out the menu, again cheerfully greeting the glum-looking angel in an expensive overcoat.

The silver-haired man didn't even touch the offered menu, instead just wondering, "Do you have that crushed ice coffee?"

For a moment Sora looked blank, probably wondering why the hell someone would order something frozen when it was snowing outside, but his smile returned full force as he nodded. "Yup, we sell something just like Starbucks' Frappuccino. We have caramel, white chocolate, mo—"

"Mocha."

"Alright," Sora continued, undeterred, brown spikes of hair bouncing a little as he nodded. "Care for anything to eat to go with it? We have crepes, croissants, chocolate chip cookies—lots of C's. Anyway. You name it, we probably have it."

Riku gave him a disbelieving look for a moment, but when Sora offered another warm smile, he lightened up a little and relaxed into the comfortable booth cushion. Just because he was being the Christmas Scrooge, it didn't give him the right to dampen anyone else's spirits.

Lowering his gaze to study the table, he sighed, tracing a finger over the smooth surface of his menu. "If it's alright, I'll just order something later," he said quietly. "I'm going to be here a while..."

An awkward silence passed between them, an annoyingly-happy version of Jingle Bells speaking for them as Sora simply watched the other man slump his shoulders and prop an elbow onto the table, looking so lethargic and...

Lost.

Clearing his throat as though it'd excuse the lapse, Sora nodded again, managing a cute laugh. "Alright. I'll leave the menu with you. Take your time, alright? Just wave and I'll come right over."

And with that, the brunette retreated back to the counter, smile fading immediately when his back was turned to the other man. Leon was still pretending to read, brown bangs swept over his steely gray eyes, one large hand holding the flimsy magazine up in front of him as he leaned against the counter. His gaze was following Sora, however, and the younger man caught his discreet stare, shrugging in response to the silent question.

Sora knew that, as cold and sullen as he seemed, even Leon hated to see such a sad sight so close to such a happy holiday. With a lingering glance at the icy angel sitting in his booth alone, Sora gave a soft pout of concern before he went to prepare the ordered iced coffee.

But even a half hour later, after Riku had finished his frozen beverage and left its empty container on the table, he still did not call Sora back over. A few customers came and went, ordering their French Vanilla coffee and banana nut muffins, and still the silver-haired man remained, sitting quietly, chin in his hand as he stared out the window at the dark street, watching passersby with a blank expression on his face.

Another soft snow began to fall outside around a quarter to an hour, and by then Riku had removed his coat, draping it next to him on the booth's cushion. Once in a while he would remove a gold trinket from its black pockets, studying it with an almost pained expression before returning it to its home in his coat. He did this a lot, Sora noticed, counting almost ten viewings by the time hour one crept upon them.

Dinnertime approached. Fewer customers came, ordered, and left, and Sora, who impatiently watched the lonely man watching the emptying street, couldn't help wondering his story.

Leon merely raised an eyebrow when the younger man finally caved in with a sigh and bustled around behind the counter to prepare something without permission. It was nearing seven o'clock and there was only one patron in the Red Nocturne.

Dazedly watching a happy couple walking hand-in-hand down the sidewalk, Riku slowly blinked, studying the curious way snow drifted like lace through the spotlights that were streetlamps. The girl nuzzled into her boyfriend's shoulder, and even from this distance inside the café, Riku could hear their happy laughter as they neared the building.

He was considering checking his gold pocket watch to see what time it was when he was startled out of his thoughts.

There came a loud clunk of porcelain and glass on his table, and he looked up just in time to see Sora stepping back, grinning and looking proud of himself. A small plate of chocolate chip cookies and a tall, frosty glass of milk now rested on the table in front of Riku.

"It's on the house," Sora said, hands on his hips.

Riku regarded the gift with a weary expression before glancing back out the window, the happy couple now passing close to the café.

"It's kinda funny that such a crazy, hectic holiday can make everyone so happy."

At that strangely wistful statement, Riku raised his gaze again, noticing Sora had been watching the couple too, and now had a fond expression on his face. He narrowed his eyes at the younger man, giving him a look that clearly stated that he wanted to be left alone.

Sora's smile just spread at that. "You should smile more!" he chirped, crossing his arms across his apron. "You know if you keep on frowning like that, it's going to get stuck on your face. And that would hurt because it takes a lot of exercise to frown, which is a lot of muscles moving, so turn that frown upside down!"

The smile cracked into a brilliant grin that almost made Riku twitch.

He glanced away, lifting a hand to rake through his silver hair.

Sora saw the hint, but clearly didn't take it.

"I didn't have to work today, y'know," he said pleasantly, leaning against the table, ignoring the way Riku shied away from him. "But my mom and family were just so smothering, so I had to get away. I don't get to see them as much as I want anymore, but I'm beginning to think that's a good thing, hehe."

This time Riku shook his head, sighing. "Look, I don't want to talk, okay?" He raised his head to give Sora a stern look, only to hesitate at the other man's silly grin. "......."

"So, Mr. Grumpy, is it that you don't like Christmas time, or did something really bad happen to dampen your spirits, hmm?"

Green eyes narrowed before lowering again. "I just don't like Christmas," he replied, studying the simple white plate of cookies, and how the glass of milk was beginning to weep onto the table.

"Why not?"

A shrug. That was it.

Fighting back a disappointed pout, and silently reminding himself not to pry into other people's business, Sora crossed his arms back over his apron, trying to keep his spirits strong. "Well, eat your cookies and milk, otherwise Leon will get pissy about wasting like five bucks of merchandise on a lurker."

The quiet man raised his head, regarding Sora with a soft frown before glancing at the gift on the table again. Very softly, he spoke.

"Thanks..."

His voice was so timid, almost as though it was a foreign thing for him to be grateful, like he wasn't used to it. And though Sora hadn't gotten very good first impressions from this sullen customer, he found himself wanting to help him out, cheer him up, get to know him better, feeling almost fond of him.

Slowly Riku picked up the first cookie, studying it for a moment before taking a small bite, chewing at a leisurely pace to savor the soft treat, his taste buds crying out from the sudden sweetness after having nothing to eat all day. The cookie was very fresh tasting, the chocolate easily melting in the heat of his mouth, feeling like sugary velvet on his tongue.

Sora's smile returned, blue eyes twinkling with amusement as he watched the other man. "Hey, my shift is over soon. If you're planning on staying here all night, that means you have no plans for later, right?"

Riku continued munching on his cookie, but that sharp gaze returned to Sora's face, regarding him with a curious look. "Why?"

"Because I want to get to know you!"

Munchmunch. Swallow. "Not interested."

"Oh come on!" Sora said, a pout very evident in his cute voice. His tone dropped slightly though, and took on a more generous hint. "And it looks like you could use some cheering up, y'know?"

It wasn't like Riku enjoyed being Scrooge, honestly. He just didn't know how to react to people like this, especially when they were so keen on him, like Sora was. Riku wasn't happy. He rarely smiled. His family hated him. Christmas was just a reminder of how empty and depressing his life was, and he didn't feel like celebrating that fact when it seemed everyone else around him had something to appreciate.

Sora obviously loved his life, cherished his happiness, and it was really sweet that he wanted to share some with a total stranger like Riku, but...

For Riku, it was very unnerving.

But when Sora's voice dropped again, filling with an almost wistful, hopeful emotion, Riku felt himself cave in.

"I don't want to walk alone anyway," the younger man said quietly, though his tone still held a smile, "so let's go together."

At this, Riku looked up at him, starting on his second cookie and chewing thoughtfully as he studied Sora's winning puppy eyes.

"....where?" he asked flatly, though he really was curious as to where this guy planned to take him.

He felt he should have expected what came next. Sora practically leapt onto him, grinning ear-to-ear, brimming with excitement.

"I'll show you!" he beamed, eyes bright. "Eat your cookies and I'll see if Leon will let me off early, okay?"

And for the first time in a long time, Riku actually felt good about himself, to see someone look so happy because of something he'd done, even if it was something as simple as accepting cookies and milk, and agreeing to go somewhere with him.

This was definitely going to be an interesting night...

--

And he was right.

Even outside of work, as they walked the snowy sidewalks to a different part of town, Sora was still animated and talkative, always gesturing and giggling through his speech, carrying on entire conversations by himself even when Riku pretended not to listen. It was hard to, really. Not to listen. Riku had tried, but he actually found himself wanting to know more about this guy and how he could be so full of happy energy.

Riku walked next to him in silence, gloved hands tucked into the deep pockets of his overcoat, two fingers fiddling with the golden treasure buried from sight there. He itched to pull it out and see how much time had passed since they'd left the café, but he didn't want to seem rude right now, and that was a strange feeling... Usually he wouldn't care about it.

It seemed fitting, really, where Sora led them. When Riku saw the modest two-story building, looking like a church-turned-home, he almost laughed out of the whole cliché of it all.

Sora seemed like the type who would visit such a place on a regular basis. He truly did.

Riku read the bronze lettering of "Gainsborough Orphanage" on the side of the building as they climbed the stoop, the humble porch littered with second-hand toys and crumbling brown and red maple leaves. Ushering him forward, Sora flashed him another of his grins, just opening the front door and stepping right in, tugging Riku by his coat-sleeve.

"Back again already, Sora?"

The voice was soft and kind, like a classic interpretation of a mother, though Riku's own mother had never sounded so welcoming and warm. A tall woman stood there, long black hair falling straight down her lean back, glistening like smooth obsidian in the twinkling Christmas atmosphere of the interior of the orphanage's atrium. Her attire was modest, as was her warm smile, but her sharp green eyes focused on Riku immediately as he stepped through the threshold behind Sora, probably looking like some sort of dark cloud trailing after the friendly boy.

"Oh, and you brought a new friend," she commented, sounding genuinely surprised.

"Yeah," Sora smiled, gesturing to Riku. And for the first time since they'd met, Sora probably realized he didn't even know the other man's name, because Riku had never given it to him. Figures.

Feeling generous that moment, Riku decided to save the guy from embarrassing himself. He nodded, managing a non-threatening smile as he greeted the woman. "I'm Riku. I hope it's not too much trouble that Sora brought me along."

"Oh, not at all," the woman assured, smiling kindly. "I am Matron. The children are in the room ahead. They'll be so happy to meet you. It's not often that Sora brings new friends."

Sora rubbed the back of his head, giving a soft laugh. "Well, I would have brought Art and Runie, but I just got off work, actually."

She nodded, understanding, giving Riku another glance-over. "It's nice to meet you, Riku. It's almost the children's bedtime, so feel free to come back again when you have more time to play."

And almost on cue, a loud squeal came from the open doorway, a little girl in a yellow pajamas standing there grinning up at them.

"SORA'S HERE!!! SOOORAA!!!"

Sora laughed, kneeling as the girl came barreling towards him, leaping into his outstretched arms, both of them giggling like maniacs as more small heads peered around the doorframe, eyes lighting up when they saw Sora there.

"Sora!!"

"YAY, Sora's here!!"

Approximately a dozen small bodies were suddenly crowded around Sora, all pulling at his large coat and tugging him towards the other room, all chattering at about ten words a second, prepubescent voices filled with an enthusiasm that was foreign to Riku.

The three adults followed the children, Sora being swamped by little, writhing bodies of joy chanting his name and all trying to get his attention at the same time. A few cast shy looks in Riku's direction, curious but intimidated by his tall, dark stature.

A lone teddy bear lay discarded on the floor at his feet. It was missing its button nose and the fur looked a bit faded in color, and a silly pink patch covered a hole in one leg—all signs of a well-loved stuffed animal, the kind of companion Riku missed having as a child.

He bent down, pale fingers curling around one squishy arm of the bear, gently lifting it. Bringing his other hand forward, he clutched the bear, admiring how nostalgically soft it was, so velveteen, so worn and loved. Its head lopped to the side as he held it in front of him, studying it, its curly mouth frowning at his frown, almost taunting.

A tug at his pant leg attracted his attention, his gaze pulling away from the teddy bear to see the tiny girl in the yellow pajamas staring up at him with large, innocent eyes. "That's Howard. He's sick cuz he can't pick his nose cuz he don't have a nose no more, so his head is FULL of boogers! That's—that's—that's what Tidus told me."

Riku cracked a smile at that, a smile that lasted only a brief moment, for another kid bumped into Riku's leg, staring up at him with scared eyes before running off, reminding him how estranged he was. Lips pulling into a thin line, Riku regarded the small girl again, holding the bear out to her. She took it with a grateful grin before running off as well, her short, flippy brown hair bouncing as she hopped back to Sora.

Blinking slowly, Riku ran a hand through his silver locks before issuing a soft sigh. His eyes skimmed over Sora's happy face as he conversed cheerfully with the children, blue eyes unbelievably bright as he tossed back his head and released loud, full laughter.

As he stood there, soaking in the warm, cozy atmosphere, Riku couldn't help feeling... out of place. Again. He just didn't fit in here, with all these smiles, laughter, friendly banter. He just... wasn't happy enough. He was completely alienated from the crowd of buzzing children, their eyes as bright as Sora's as they giggled with glee.

... He had always felt... odd... in even the smallestof crowds. Like he didn't fit, like he didn't belong, like he was unwanted.

To take his mind off the uncomfortable feeling, Riku idly dug in his coat, eyes gazing down at his pocket watch. It was a purely beautiful thing... golden and the size of his palm, little white wings curling around the sides of it. It was a bit worn, a gift that he had received from his father as a child... back when Christmases were still magical. Back when they still meant something.

He noticed with disdain that only nine minutes had passed since they had arrived at the orphanage, the little twitching hands mocking him, their faint ticks lost in the sound of joyful laughter. It felt like it had been hours to Riku, and he was ready to go home and finally call it a night. If he had anticipated something like this would happen—namely Sora and his "Christmas spirit" antics—he definitely wouldn't have bothered coming into town.

Riku heaved a sigh as he placed a hand to his brow, massaging it as his eyes flicked over the room. They landed on a little boy sitting across from the other children, his head bowed, blonde hair glimmering softly in the light.

Casting a glance in Sora's direction—the guy was still busy with the other boys and girls—Riku tucked his hands in his coat pockets and walked quietly across the floor until his booted feet stopped just before bare ones dangling freely in the air.

Eyes blinked in confusion and glanced up, revealing crystal clear blue irises. A chubby little face looked surprised for all of two seconds and then lowered sadly as a bottom lip puckered into a pout.

"Yes?" the boy asked sullenly.

Riku sat down on the bench beside him, and he flashed a smile. And even though it was small, faint, it still almost... hurt, something incredibly unfamiliar on his lips.

"Why... are you sitting here all by yourself?" Riku asked softly, and before he was aware of what he was doing, the fingers of his left hand were already out and smoothing through soft blonde locks gently.

Riku stared at his fingers performing such an affectionate gesture, and he wondered what had come over him so suddenly. Christmas spirit? He wanted to laugh at the thought. It was absolutely ridiculous. And yet here he was, petting this kid sympathetically, somehow feeling as if he had met a kindred spirit. Was that even possible? Better yet, was it likely? Riku had never felt comfortable with anyone in his life... So why was he now?

I... used to long for company... Riku thought, eyes lowering sadly as his fingers stopped their tender caress and dropped numbly to his lap. His eyes drifted up without really seeing anything, an odd haze of confusing, mixed emotions shrouding his mind. I... wonder what happened?

"...The other kids keep sayin' I'm loud and bossy..." the boy said after a long moment, kicking his dangling feet idly. "They don't want me playin' with 'em. So I just... came over here."

"Don't want to, you say?" Riku replied quietly. "Why do they think you're loud and bossy?"

The boy huffed a little, looking up at Riku with smoldering blue eyes, and he was still pouting. "'Cause! I wanted to play adventure! But they didn't wanna! They wanted to play board games! And what fun is board games?!" he rambled, those angry eyes filling with tears quickly as he carried on, and his bottom lip trembled. "So they told me I was a crybaby, too! I'm not a crybaby! I—!"

He broke off as he took a long, shuddering breath, choking on a sob. Raising shaky hands to his face, he rubbed the freshly falling tears away, and stared up at Riku gloomily.

"An' that's what happened, mister."

"Well..." Riku paused, and then spoke softly, "Maybe they will want to play adventure later?"

But the boy only shook his head furiously, hiccoughing. "They never wanna play adventure, mister!"

The older of the two sighed softly, running a hand idly through his hair. "...My name is Riku."

Big, blue eyes stared up at him curiously, and the boy sniffled. "Ri...ku?" he tried, sounding the name out slowly. He beamed a smile seconds later, revealing that he was missing his two front teeth, tears trickling freely down his cheeks despite his earlier attempts to get rid of them. "I'm Tidus!"

Riku chuckled a little. Children... easy to get over their woes. "That's a nice name." His lips curved into another faint smile. "Why don't you try playing board games with them?"

Tidus frowned thoughtfully, eyes flickering over to the giggling group of his peers. "...I dunno..." he said after a moment. "They seem pretty boring an' all."

"Well... Have you ever tried to play one?" Riku asked softly. "They don't look the least bit interesting?"

"But... But..." And Tidus' eyes were welling with tears again. "Just once, can't we play what I wanna play? We always play what they wanna play!"

Riku thought about this for a long moment—he wasn't very familiar with children, considering he had been alone during that particular stage of life—then shrugged. "Why don't you play their board games with them... And then ask them kindly if they will play what you would like to play, Tidus?"

Tidus hesitated, eyes sullen, then gave a watery smile and sniffled. "I guess."

Nodding in approval, Riku flashed a slightly bigger smile this time—his muscles ached, so it disappeared quickly—and pulled out his pocket watch again. Seventeen minutes since they had entered the orphanage. Damnit...

Feeling a curious gaze watching him, Riku looked up, blinking, to stare into suddenly shining blue eyes. Tidus' lips spread into a big grin. "You should smile more often, mister. It looks nice."

Riku raised an eyebrow slowly, lips pressing into a thin line. But as the child continued beaming at him, he felt his lips twitching of their own accord, and a moment later he was smiling just as cheerfully. It felt... awkward, but... somehow very nice.

"You know, mister... Time flies by when you're having fun."

"Er..." Riku's lips twisted into a puzzled frown.

"The watch..." Tidus pointed to it. "It's pretty. Can I see?"

"I—well, I suppose so." Riku held it out by the golden chain, fingers wrapped securely around it as Tidus' small hands held the watch in his hands.

"Woooow, mister...!" Tidus breathed softly.

"Riku," the silver-haired male reminded him.

"Eh? Oh—yeah. Sorry." Grinning sheepishly, Tidus released the watch, and it dangled in the air a moment, twirling, before Riku placed it back within his pocket.

"Alright, children!" Matron suddenly proclaimed, clapping her hands. Everyone looked up, eyes shifting to the woman, and Riku watched as Sora gave a small, disappointed frown, releasing the girl he was currently holding in his arms.

"It's time to go to bed!" the young woman announced. She flashed a soft smile at Sora and Riku. "And thank you so much for coming tonight. I'm sure the kids really appreciated it. Isn't that right, children?"

"Right!" the children chorused, then sighed, looking glum, and began to trail to a doorway behind the woman.

Tidus climbed to his feet as well, turning to go, but just as Riku also stood, the boy suddenly whirled back around, hugging Riku firmly around his middle. Riku tensed for a moment, expression stiff, before he relaxed just slightly, awkwardly patting the boy's head.

"Heehee," Tidus giggled, flashing a grin at Riku as he pulled away, then hurried off after the matron. Riku stared after him, a little stunned, and just before the blonde turned around the corner, he waved and said, "Good-bye, mister!"

Riku raised a hand slowly, hesitantly, and nodded once.

And then Tidus was out of sight.

It wasn't until he felt Sora's shoulder brush his own that Riku realized he had been staring after the children. He didn't turn his face to meet Sora's smile, which he knew was present—he could practically feel it emanating off the other man.

"You're not so cold after all, are you?" he said, prodding Riku hard in his side.

Finally the older man turned his head, giving Sora a blasé look. "Whatever."

"You sound like Leon now," the brunette chuckled, latching onto Riku's arm and pulling him towards the back of the orphanage. "C'mon, let's go."

Confused as to why they weren't heading towards the way they had come in, Riku asked in a surprised voice, "We're not leaving?"

"No, there's something else I wanted to show you."

And this time, when Riku met Sora's eyes, he found that he didn't really mind Sora's contagious smile.

--

Riku had never been around so many cats in one place in his life. Granted, there was only six or so, but it was still slightly unnerving. The funny thing about it was... he hadn't thought that Sora was a cat person. At all. A few minutes ago, when Sora had requested warm milk from Matron, Riku had been confused as hell, but now he understood.

Sora not only came to the orphanage to visit with the children, but came for the stray cats as well. The guy even talked to the felines as though they were actual people, his voice drawing out into a cute croon as he knelt on the wooden porch, petting as many of the cats as he could at one time.

"Can you hear them purring? Hehe, they're so cute..."

Fighting back a grimace and hoping he wouldn't have fur all over himself when he left this place, Riku crouched next to Sora, clearing his throat. A cold, dry nose brushed Riku's outstretched hand, as if to sniff out whether or not he was a friendly person, before a warm sandpaper tongue scraped across his thumb, a tender action as rough as it was. The kitten that had singled him out was calico, a true stray, black, brown, peach, and white all over, a high, stuttering purr issuing from its small body as it began to rub against his black pant leg.

He slid a hand over its cold fur, feeling its strong muscles ripple under his curious touch. Its winter coat was remarkably soft, reminding him of the velveteen bear he'd handled earlier, and he couldn't help tracing his fingers back over the kitten's back, smiling faintly at the way the creature arched happily into his touch, rubbing its face almost desperately into his wrist, seeking more affection.

When Sora set the two bowls of milk down, however, the kitten pulled away from Riku and darted over to Sora, crowding with the other cats around the porcelain dishes to drink its Christmas treat.

Riku curled his hand in, feeling his fingers tingling from where he had been petting the small cat, and it wasn't until he looked up that he noticed Sora was watching him with a fond look.

"So your name is Riku, huh?" he said, warm smile still in place, his eyes lowering to watch the cats bustle over the milk. "I like how it sounds..."

Not sure how to reply to such a personal comment, Riku lowered his face as well, listening to the lapping of small tongues and milk. A frigid breeze made him draw his arms around himself, pulling his coat in tighter, his silver hair trailing like soft feathers behind him in the gust of wind.

Even when Sora raised his head to study him again, Riku didn't look at him, allowing the younger man to stare, to study, as uncomfortable as it made him feel. Out here in the icy air, alone with Sora and the cats, he felt surprisingly tranquil. He felt calm often, but... this kind of peace was strange. Warmhearted, almost. He would have felt comfortable, if not for Sora's stare.

"Do you have a small family?" the brunette wondered, reaching down to idly stroke a cat's back. Riku saw him play with its tail before releasing it, watching it twirl in annoyance.

"Yeah," he replied shortly, hoping the guy didn't inquire further.

He didn't. Sora smiled to himself, playing with the cat's tail again. "My family is huge. Overwhelming sometimes. I have a younger brother and sister, and an older brother, and both my parents... Six of us might not seem like a lot but for what room there's left at the table, my mom makes up for with her crazy antics. My entire family is crazy, really... except Cloud. He's a little sullen. You'd probably like him. Anyway... My mom loves to invite people to dinner, without my permission or not, because most of the time her invites are my friends. Artemis and Rairune and Leon for example. Always eating over. It gets annoying, so many people in my small house..."

Riku raised an eyebrow at the babbling, letting the other man continue on in his own little world.

"It doesn't help that most of them get really hyper easily. Sometimes I'm really glad I live on campus, but... It's been a really nice vacation, being back at home a little while." He paused, glancing up at Riku with smiling blue eyes. "You probably don't know what it's like, right?"

"I don't."

"Thought so..." Sora's fingers rubbed into a kitty's head, stroking behind its ears almost lovingly. "I have a cat at home too. Izzy. She's perverted. Do you have any pets?"

Riku shook his head. "Used to have a bird when I was a kid. That was a long time ago though..."

"Oh. How old are you?" Sora wondered.

"Twenty-two."

"Heh, damn... I'm a year younger," the younger man laughed, rising to his feet and brushing off his knees. "I knew you were going to be older, but... I dunno." He smiled, rubbing the back of his head.

A soft buzzing sound cut into the conversation, and it wasn't until Riku saw Sora pull out a cell phone that he realized what the noise had been. Sora gave a short "hehe" when he saw who was calling him, and he flipped the phone open, voice bubbly.

"Hey Mom."

The voice on the other line was loud enough to be heard as though Riku was the one with his ear pressed to the cell.

"Sora-honey, when are you getting home? I'm almost done with dinner!"

"Uhhh..." Sora hesitated, glancing at Riku briefly. "I just got off work, but I'll be there soon. Got distracted."

"You're with someone, aren't you?" the woman's voice accused in a strangely happy voice.

"Yeah, but Mom—"

"Bring him home for dinner!"

"Mom, you don't know him."

"Ohhh, it is a him? What's his name, hmm?"

"........Riku." Sora shot Riku an apologetic look. "Do you want to eat with us? My mom won't give up otherwise anyway."

"Is he cute? Your friends are always so cute. Ahh, you have such good taste, Sora."

"MOM. Hold on." Sora put a hand over the receiver of his cell and grinned sheepishly at Riku. "So do you want to come?"

His silver head was already shaking in response, and Sora, still covering his cell phone, looked at him with hurt eyes, as though he really expected Riku to accept the offer. His bottom lip poked out a little, a cute pout forming on his face as he looked down, watching the kitties rub against his legs, done with their milk and expecting more love from him.

"My mom is a really good cook! She'll probably throttle me if I let you go. And you'll love my family. And, um..." Sora trailed off, worrying his lip for a moment. "I know I kind of just pulled you into all of this without asking you if it was okay, but I've had fun... Besides, you have nothing else to do, right?"

Those blue eyes rose to meet Riku's again, silently pleading. Somehow that look really bothered him, seeing the usually happy face now filled with uncertainty, worry.... and fading hope, as Riku took longer and longer to reply.

As the kitten from earlier nuzzled into his pant leg, Riku gave a small sigh, raking a hand through his hair.

"I suppose."

With a happy cry and a smile brighter than his usual ones, Sora leapt at Riku, pulling him into a big hug.

"Thanks so much!! You'll love it!! Yeah, Mom, he's coming! See you then!"

An awkward feeling fluttered in Riku's gut, confusing him as to why this guy was affecting him so much. It couldn't be the whole Christmas spirit thing—that was just dumb! But if it wasn't that, then... Why did he feel so suddenly relieved to see Sora's smile again?

As Sora's gloved hand wrapped around his numbing fingers and tugged him back towards the door to head home, Riku mused that maybe a family dinner wouldn't be too bad after all.


To be continued...