Nights became colder as winter descended upon Twilight Town. As the year drew towards its end, it had been snowing heavily and the streets were covered inches deep with the icy substance. And atop the bell tower, overlooking Station Heights, three small figures clad in black looked down on the bustle of people, watching the flurry of activity with amused interest.
"Twilight Town looks so different!" Roxas exclaimed, almost falling off the tower as he tried to follow a chubby woman loaded with parcels with his eyes. "All these lights and people! What are they all doing?"
Axel was lying on his back with his legs over the edge, looking up at the grey sky. "Well, it's Christmas time," he said. "Everybody's probably getting into the holiday cheer and doing some last-minute shopping. Tonight's Christmas Eve, after all."
"Christmas? What's that?" Xion asked. The black-haired girl looked at Axel with wide-eyed curiosity. "I've never heard of it before."
The redhead pulled himself upright and stared at her with amazement. "You've never…? Oh, come on! I know you haven't been around for very long, but even so, you must at least have heard…"
He looked from Xion to Roxas, who'd abandoned his game of spying on the woman and was now gazing at Axel with the same inquisitive look on his face that Xion had. The redhead groaned. "Not you too?"
"Sorry, Axel." The blonde boy grinned sheepishly. "First time I've ever heard of it."
"You have got to be kidding me!" Axel grumbled under his breath. He sat down with crossed legs, making himself more comfortable. "Alright children – gather 'round and let me tell you about something called a "Christmas tree"… and a fat guy clad in red named Santa Claus…"
It took him quite a while to finish the entire story, and when he had, the shops were closing and all the people were gone, or packed together in the station trying to catch the train home. Xion and Roxas were staring at him with faces aglow with excitement and eyes full of questions.
"But how can he travel through the air on a sleigh pulled by reindeers?" Roxas asked suspiciously. "Wouldn't it just crash to the ground? You're making it all up, aren't you!"
"Am not. Look, I don't know how he does it, okay? I'm just telling you how it is. I can't explain how we travel the Dark Corridors either and yet we do it all the time, don't we? It's probably some kind of magic or something. Maybe he's got a store of pixie dust!"
"And how does he know if you've been naughty or nice all year?" Xion wondered. "Does he have spies everywhere or something?"
Axel threw up his hands in exasperation. "How should I know? Look, he's Santa Claus! He's special! He can do all these things!"
There was a moment of silence as the two younger Nobodies mulled this over. Then, Xion said in a small voice; "I wonder if he knows about us?"
Axel shrugged. "I dunno. Probably not. We're Nobodies – by all rights we shouldn't even exist. I know I never got a present from Santa."
His tone was matter-of-fact and he didn't think much about it either way. But his friends suddenly looked very thoughtful and Xion's lower lip quivered. "No presents from Santa… no Christmas at all…" she said. "That's so… sad."
"It is how it is," Axel said, a little more brusquely than he intended. "Why bother fretting over something you can't change? It makes no difference to me." Yet something nagged at him, a vague feeling he could not shake off. Like he had forgotten something important. His friends were quick to pick up on it.
"You're sorry you can't celebrate Christmas, aren't you?" Roxas said. "It's making you sad, too."
"Maybe we should have a Christmas party too, all of the Organisation," Xion suggested.
"Forget it," Axel said. "It wouldn't be the same, not like – for them." He nodded at the empty plaza. "We don't have hearts, right?"
"We could try," Roxas said hesitantly.
Axel turned on him. "Look, I said forget it, okay! Put it out of your mind! Don't think about it! Nobodies don't have Christmas! Got it memorized?" He jumped up and summoned a portal. "It's getting late. We'd better get back." His friends, sensing his bad mood, looked at each other, shrugged and followed him back to the castle.
Later that day, Xion and Roxas held a secret conclave, just the two of them. "I can't imagine that Santa Claus would just forget about us," Xion said. "I mean, Nobodies are people too, right? In a way…" She looked thoughtful for a moment. "You know, I said I didn't know what Christmas was and I meant it – but now that Axel explained it to us, it's almost as if I remember… well, like I feel what it means. In here, I mean." She laid her hand on her chest. "Like I'm all warm and fuzzy inside."
"Yeah, me too," Roxas said. "And I can almost see it in front of me. A brightly decorated tree, with real candles and ornaments…" He sighed. But I don't think Axel can feel it, not any more. Maybe he lost it when he became a Nobody. It almost seemed to offend him when we talked about it."
"Maybe Christmas forgot about Nobodies because they forgot about it," Xion said, suddenly spirited. "We have to make them remember!"
"How are we going to do that?" Roxas asked, but as he did so, an idea popped into his head. He could tell by the bright look on Xion's face that she'd come to the same conclusion. Together, they said:
"We're going to visit Santa Claus!"
"Demyx?" Roxas asked when they'd cornered the musician in the mission room. "Do you know where Santa Claus lives?"
They had decided to ask Demyx instead of Axel because their friend had made it very clear he no longer wanted to talk about Christmas. Plus, he might catch on to their plan and try to stop them. But the Melodious Nocturne knew nothing of their earlier conversation and what was more; he wasn't suspicious by nature. So he happily supplied them with whatever information they asked for.
"Sure, he lives on the North Pole, of course. A place called Christmas Town or something. I think there's an entrance to it near Halloween Town – at any rate, I saw something like that when I was on a mission there a few days back. A new portal – it always pops up around this time of year." He started playing a cheerful tune on his sitar and sand softly to himself. "He's making a list, he's checking it twice…" He broke off and looked around, sighing wistfully. "I wish Xemnas would let us have a Christmas tree around here – it sure would brighten this place up! Ah well…" He hummed to himself and went on to play other songs, not Christmas-related. Roxas and Xion exchanged glances and smiled knowingly.
It was not difficult to find the right portal in Halloween Town; one of the trees in the gloomy grove that provided access to the worlds linked to Halloween Town sported a door in the shape of a Christmas tree. "This must be it," Roxas said, pushing, prying and finally pulling on it. "I wonder how this works…"
Without warning, the Christmas tree popped loose and they both fell into a deep hole. They tumbled out on the other end and landed on a hill covered with snow. "We're here! This must be it!" Xion said, exalted. She pointed at a sign, which marked the place as "Yuletide Hill". "And that road – "Candy Cane Lane" - must lead to Christmas Town! Let's go!"
She began to run through the snow, down the lane, and Roxas had to hurry to keep up.
Candy Cane Lane led to a small square that was cheerfully decorated and gave the place a festive cheer. Xion let out a squeal of delight. "Ooh, look! A merry-go-round!"
"Don't we have business to do here?" Roxas asked with a grin. The girl gave him a hurt look. "I can think it nice, can't I? This town is so pretty!" She looked around. "But were do we go now?"
"Look!" Roxas pointed at a sign that read; "Santa's Workshop". "Let's check out that place first."
The young Nobodies crept up to the door, suddenly and inexplicably nervous.
Neither of them dared to knock. Finally, Roxas put his hand on the doorknob and pushed. The door opened soundlessly. The children tiptoed inside and huddled together, staring.
The big room in which they found themselves bustled with activity. Little, pointy-eared creatures ran to and fro, carrying toys, parcels, candy – or were engaged in wrapping presents. They whistled or sang while they worked. So enchanted were the pint-sized Nobodies with the sight, that they completely forgot where they were and why, and could only gaze, open-mouthed.
It did not take long before they were noticed. An elf glanced in their direction, dropped the package he was carrying, and ran off, yelling: "Santa Claus! Santa Claus!"
"What is it now, Twinkle?" a voice sounded, a little strained but not unkind. "You know we're behind schedule already. We don't have time to -"
A fat, round man appeared, dressed in red fur trousers held up with suspenders over his white shirt. His face was equally round, jolly-looking with red cheeks, but a little agitated. He had a white beard and white hair and kind, laughing eyes. Xion and Roxas began to tremble in awe when they looked up at him and realised they stood face-to-face with Santa Claus!
"I think I know why you are here," Santa Claus said, when they were all gathered around a cosily burning hearth. He sat in a comfortable overstuffed armchair and looked kindly down on the children, who sat huddled closely together on a sofa, their hands wrapped around mugs of steaming hot cocoa. "You want to know if you're on my "nice" list this year, right?"
Xion and Roxas nodded. It was near enough to the truth and neither of them felt they could gather the courage to launch into a proper explanation right now.
"Well then," Santa Claus said. "Let's see now… what are your names?"
"Xion and Roxas. Oh, and we want to know about Axel as well," Roxas added as an afterthought.
Santa Claus looked them both in the eye. He was silent for a moment and then he drowned. "Hmm, that is odd… I don't know anyone by those names. But I know all children! Twinkle!" he yelled back to the workroom.
As if by magic, the elf appeared. "Yes, boss?"
"Bring me my "naughty-and-nice" list."
The elf disappeared, quickly returning with a very long sheaf of paper. Santa spent some time perusing it, hmm-ing all the while, while Roxas and Xion looked on anxiously. Finally the old man looked up, distress obvious on his round face.
"You're not there," he said. "Not on the "nice" list and not under "naughty" either. But how can that be?"
Very softly, Xion said: "It's probably because we're Nobodies." She sighed sadly. "It's true then. Nobodies don't get to celebrate Christmas."
"Somebody got changed into Heartless and we're what's left," Roxas explained. "We were hoping we got ask you not to forget us with Christmas."
Understanding dawned on the old man's face. "It's not that simple," he said sympathetically. "You need a heart in order to celebrate Christmas and you haven't got one. Christmas is more than just presents and a Christmas tree. How can you understand the true spirit of Christmas without a heart?"
"We can try," Roxas said hopefully.
"We want to try," Xion added.
Santa Claus thought long and hard. "I'll tell you what," he said finally. "I have to go and deliver presents to all the good little children now. Why don't you come with me and help me? You might learn something about the meaning of Christmas while we're at it."
Xion's face lit up. "Can we?" she asked.
"Oh, yes please!" Roxas cried.
Meanwhile, at the castle in the World That Never Was, the absence of the Organisation's two youngest members had not gone unnoticed. "Where are Numbers Thirteen and Fourteen?" Saïx asked, crossing his arms and letting his eyes wander through the mission room.
"Dunno," Axel said, walking in behind him. "I haven't seen them since we came back from our mission in Twilight Town. I've been napping since then."
"I saw them earlier this evening, when they asked me some questions about Santa Claus," Demyx said, looking up from strumming his sitar. "They took off pretty quickly after that."
Saïx rolled his eyes, but Axel stared at the musician, his eyes narrowing. "What kind of questions?" he asked in a dangerous tone of voice.
"What are you glaring at me like that for, Axel?" Demyx protested. "Um… ordinary stuff. Where he lived, like that. Whatever questions kids come up with this time of year." He laughed nervously. "Heh, wouldn't it be funny if they actually went and looked him up? I mean, we know he's actually real and all…"
His voice trailed off as Axel stormed out of the mission room. Pushing his sitar aside, the blonde Nobody sat upright and looked at Saïx. "Not funny?" he inquired.
Xion and Roxas had the time of their lives. It was exhilarating to travel high in the sky on a sleigh full of presents. The merry ching-ching-ching of bells rang through the air and occasionally Santa Claus' jolly voice sounded as he directed his reindeer. "Go, Donner! Go, Blitzen! Merry Christmas, ho ho ho!"
The children became quite adept at dropping large presents through a chimney and took great delight in fantasizing about what would be in them and how happy the lucky recipients would be with them. On the longer rides between towns and cities, they told Santa Claus all about Organisation XIII, who were in it and what they were like. "Demyx wanted a Christmas tree," Roxas sighed. "We don't even have that much."
Santa Claus did not reply, but he listened on with great interest and a twinkle in his eye.
Xion watched him fill a long Christmas stocking with coal. "Santa?" she asked in a timid voice. "Isn't it true that you love all children?"
"Of course I do," the old man replied with a smile.
"But not all of them get presents," the girl said. "Some of them get," she gestured at the coal, "this."
Santa's smile became a little sad. "I know. But presents are rewards for good behaviour. Naughty children don't deserve to be rewarded. But just because they don't get presents, it doesn't mean I don't love them. In fact, every time I have to crush a naughty child's dream on Christmas, it hurts a little. But even I have to follow the rules – although sometimes I can bend them a little." He winked and added a small parcel to the coal. Xion smiled, although she still looked sad.
At last all the presents had been delivered and the sleigh was on its way back to Christmas Town. Xion and Roxas sat in the back of the sleight, wrapped in a blanket, yawning and nodding with fatigue. They woke with a jolt when the sleigh landed in front of Santa's workshop.
"W-what?" Xion said sleepily, looking around. "Oh – we're back." She gave Roxas a poke. "Hey, we're back."
"Aw, I was just having the nicest dream…" Roxas mumbled, looking up drowsily. "We were having a Christmas dinner at the castle. There was turkey and stuffing and cranberry sauce... I wish it were real!"
"I wish," Xion said dreamily. She clambered out of the sleigh, followed by Roxas. "Santa – this was the most wonderful night! I'm so sorry it's over. I wish it'd lasted forever!"
"There you are!" a voice sounded. Both Xion and Roxas yelped as an irate Axel appeared. "I've been looking all over for you! What did you think you were doing, disappearing like that?" He grabbed them both by the collar and shook them like puppies. "Do you know how worried I was, when I couldn't find you?"
"W-we're sorry, Axel!" Roxas stammered.
"We won't do it again, promise!" Xion added timidly.
"Now, now," Santa Claus said, appearing from behind the sleigh, which had obscured him from Axel's vision. "Don't be too hard on them. It is Christmas, after all."
"S-Santa!" Axel released the pint-sized Nobodies and became uncharacteristically shy and flustered. "I hope they weren't too much trouble. I did warn them Nobodies and Christmas don't mix."
"No, no trouble at all. In fact, they were a great help." The old man looked intently at the flame-haired Nobody. "So you're Axel. I may not recognize the name, but you do look familiar. Have we met?"
"Uh, no, not as such…" Axel said. "But you might have known me- the person I used to be, before I became a Nobody – as Lea?"
Santa's face lit up, then fell. "Ah yes, Lea… now I remember. You used to be such a nice little boy – until you became older and only appeared on my "naughty" list – you and that friend of yours, what was his name again?" He shook his head sadly. "So this is what became of you. You gave in to the darkness in your soul and became a Heartless and a Nobody."
Axel shuffled his feet and looked at the ground, like a bad little boy who had just been caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Neither Xion nor Roxas had ever seen him look so… timid. "Yes, Santa. I'm very sorry… but I guess it's far too late to change now."
"What's that, then?" Santa Claus gave him a stern look. "It's never too late – don't you ever think that. Even the naughtiest child can appear on the "nice" list the next year, if he tried."
"Not me," Axel grinned ruefully. "Nobody, remember? We're forever banned from the naughty/nice system." He glared at his two young friends. "As I've been trying to tell you all day."
"You had better take them home," Santa intervened, looking at the sleepy faces and blinking eyes. "They look dead on their feet. It must be way past their bedtime."
"Right," Axel said. "Okay, kids, party's over. Say goodbye to Santa now!"
"Goodbye Santa. Thanks for letting us help deliver the presents," Roxas said.
"We hope we haven't been any trouble," Xion chimed in. "Merry Christmas – and I hope there will be a lot of children on the "nice" list next year," she added thoughtfully.
"Good night, children," the old man replied, smiling kindly. "Sleep well!"
Axel pulled them along back to Yuletide hill, but Xion and Roxas couldn't help casting one last glance over their shoulders. Santa Claus stood in the middle of the town square, in front of his sleigh, waving at them. "I wonder if he gets any presents?" Xion wondered aloud.
"You can leave him some milk and cookies," Axel replied. "Now are you coming, or do I have to drag you home?"
The next morning they were woken far earlier than they would have liked by Axel, who slammed open the door to their rooms and yelled: "Alright, what have you two been up to now?"
"What?" Roxas asked, emerging from his room trying to bring some order to his bed head. "We didn't do anything."
"Nothing you don't already know about, anyway," Xion added, coming out of the room next door. "What's going on?"
Axel suddenly grinned widely. "Well, you'd better see for yourself." He made a beeline for the mission room, followed by the puzzled and bemused youngsters.
Xion and Roxas froze on the doorstep, overwhelmed by the view they saw inside. "Ooh," Xion said, but she found she couldn't bring out another word.
"He didn't forget about us," Roxas said.
A large Christmas tree stood in the centre of the room, richly decorated with silver garlands and brightly coloured ornaments and candles – and even a large golden star on top. Under the tree were more presents than the small Nobodies had ever seen together, wrapped up in bright-coloured paper and tied with ribbons. Surrounding the tree, in various states of bemused surprise, stood the members of Organisation XIII, gazing at the cheerful scene.
Saïx cast a look at the two youngsters. "I take it you're responsible for this?"
"Yes – no… Well, I don't know, really," Roxas said, fidgeting. It was hard to tell if Saïx was angry or not.
"It's Santa's doing!" Xion said happily. "It must be!"
"An actual Christmas tree!" Demyx cried, elated. "I haven't seen one this beautiful since I joined the Organisation! Say – is that my name on that parcel?" He plopped down in front of the tree and happily started to unwrap his present. "Ooh, Guitar Hero 5! I got Guitar Hero 5!" He ran off to get his Playstation. Saïx rolled his eyes.
"Aw c'mon, Saïx," Axel said, throwing his arm around his friend's shoulders. "We've got the tree and the presents – let's celebrate Christmas!" He sounded cheerful, but his eyes were actually a little misty.
Saïx hesitated. "Well, alright… Why not?" The other Nobodies had gotten into the Christmas mood and started identifying and unwrapping their own presents. Xemnas eyed a large, unmarked, package suspiciously. "Is that a turkey?"
"Roxas?" Xion asked her friend as they wandered into the room and joined the fun. "Aren't you going to open your presents? I think that really big one over there is yours."
But Roxas reached out and picked up a card, which almost had gone unnoticed among all the other gifts. Depicted upon it was a nice picture of a brightly decorated sleigh pulled by eight reindeer. He folded it open. Printed inside, in large, flowing, golden letters were the words: