Saber watched Shirou drag a fairly large evergreen tree into the common room. "What are you doing, Shirou?" she asked.
"Dragging a fairly large evergreen tree into the common room," Shirou said. "You know, I wouldn't mind some help with this. A 'living tree' with roots and all is really heavy."
"I see," said Saber, innocently overlooking Shirou's indirect request for help. "Um... why are you doing this?"
"*arg* Because it'll be *oof* Christmas soon," Shirou said, as he pulled the tree upright. "I have house guests, this year, and I thought it'd be nice to celebrate the holiday season properly."
"And this is done by dragging a fairly large evergreen tree into your common room?" Saber asked. "You must pardon my ignorance, Shirou. I have been dead for most of the past thousand years, and I was not familiar with most Japanese customs when I was first alive."
"Well, it's a relatively new tradition in this country," Shirou said, as he positioned the tree in a corner. "You sound surprised, Saber."
"I am," Saber said. "In Britannia, we rarely dragged trees into our homes... except in small pieces, to burn."
"Ah," said Shirou. "Well—"
"In fact," Saber continued, "we took care to keep the trees out of our homes, seeing as how there were so many of them outside. Britannia was dear to my heart, but it had far too many trees for my taste. When I had to go outside, I found the unusually large number of trees about the place to be tiresome."
"One could not see for ten meters in any direction," Saber said petulantly, "without a TREE being in the way! It was enough to induce dendrophobia."
Shirou began to imagine that Saber might not appreciate a Christmas tree, after all. "Er—"
"And if one came too close to a tree," Saber said ominously, " one could be attacked by a tree mole."
"..." said Shirou. He stopped working on the tree in order to concentrate on parsing that statement.
"Nasty things, tree moles," Saber noted.
"Uh, Saber?" said an incredulous Shirou. "Moles don't live in trees. They're burrowing animals, if I remember correctly—"
"*I* know that!" a slightly offended Saber said. "I am not STUPID, Shirou."
"But..." Shirou said weakly.
"Only TREE moles live in trees," Saber explained patiently. "That is why we call those particular animals 'tree moles', you see."
"I remember when old John Smythe from the castle next door was set upon by a tree mole. The beast clung to his face, and it simply wouldn't let go, no matter what we did. Eventually, we had to cut off his head."
"But... wait, WHAT!? You cut off his HEAD!? You just KILLED him!?"
"Shirou?" a solemn Saber said. "You are one of the bravest souls I have had the honor of knowing. But if ever you are set upon by a tree mole? You shall beg me to behead you within minutes, such will be your torment. And though it will break my heart, I shall do it. This I swear to you, Emiya Shirou."
A dumbfounded Shirou silently stared at Saber.
Then he turned back to the Christmas tree.
And then, he slowly backed away from the tree.
"OW!!" said Rin. "I'm standing behind you, you big dope!! Why are you walking backwards!?"
"Oh, I'm sorry," Shirou stammered. "Uh... I was just taking another look at the Christmas tree. Uh, what do you think of it?"
Rin tilted her head to one side and frowned. "Hmm... not bad. But it needs more tinsel."
"I only just brought it in!" Shirou protested. "I haven't even BEGUN to decorate it yet!"
"Then HOW can you expect it to have enough TINSEL!?" Rin yelled.
Shirou hung his head. "I'll just, uh, go get the, uh, decorations." He slinked away.
"I hope," Rin said to Saber, "that Shirou made sure this tree is free of tree moles."
"We could be sure of that," Saber said malevolently, "if we cut it into small pieces and burned it."
"Patience, Saber," said Rin. "...oh, hello, Sakura! Look what Shirou brought for us!"
"What a beautiful tree!" Sakura said sweetly. "I wonder where sempai got it?"
"Somewhere outside, I suspect," Saber muttered darkly. "There are too many trees around HERE, as well..."
Rin cleared her throat. "*ahem*!! Isn't it lovely, Sakura?... Oh, Shirou! Sakura was just admiring our tree!"
Shirou had returned with the decorations. "Oh, good," he said. "I was hoping you'd like it, Sakura. I hope it'll make the holidays more—"
Sakura interrupted him. "But it needs more tinsel."
"Putting more tinsel on it now," Shirou said meekly.
"Let me get this straight," Rin said to Shirou. "You're going to have a holiday party, here in your own house, which is fine... but you're inviting the other Servants and Masters!?"
"Yeah," Shirou said. He was preparing several written invitations for mailing. "Why not?"
Rin opened and closed her mouth a few times. "Guh... nuh.. uh... there are SO MANY reasons why not, the NEXT Holy Grail War would begin before I could explain them all!!"
Shirou shrugged. "I just thought it'd be nice to do something for everybody. I hardly ever get to do things for other people."
"Shirou, you are the NICEST goody two shoes I know! You're ALWAYS doing things for other people! Frankly, I'm SICK of it!!"
"Well, OK," Shirou said, "but that's just me being me. I mean, I never do much as a Master in the Holy Grail Wars for—"
"Two things," Rin said. "One, you do NOT do nice things for other Servants and Masters in the Holy Grail War, what with it being a HOLY FREAKIN' WAR!!"
"But why must we fight?" Shirou asked plaintively. "What is to be gained by fighting?"
"Hopefully, in your case, a few IQ points," Rin said. "That's the other thing— the reason YOU never do much as a Master is, you SUCK at being a Master."
"Well, OK," Shirou said again, "but I just—"
"I mean, SERIOUSLY sucking SUCK," Rin said. "I still find it difficult to believe your breathtaking incompetence, your infuriating ineptitude, and your complete and utter suckiness."
"Message received and understood," Shirou said, as Saber walked up.
But Rin wasn't finished. "You're such a complete failure, I expect Saber cries herself to sleep at night, despairing of how she must serve a loser like you!"
Shirou turned to Saber in surprise. "You DO!?" he asked with concern.
"No," Saber said.
Rin also turned to Saber in surprise. "You DON'T!?"
"Rin?" asked Saber. "I overheard you arguing with Shirou. Is something wrong?"
"YOU tell her," Rin said smugly to Shirou. "*I* don't want Saber's sword against MY throat."
"I'm going to have a holiday party, here in my house," Shirou said to Saber, "and I'm inviting a lot of people— including the other Servants and Masters."
In an instant, Saber summoned her armor and her sword, which she unsheathed and held against Shirou's throat. "Justify this MADNESS," she demanded with righteous wrath, "in twenty-five words or less."
Shirou did it in four. "We'll have Christmas cake."
In another instant, Saber dismissed her battle gear. "Very well," she said mildly. "I approve."
"WHAT!?" Rin yelled. "You mean, you'll agree to this hare-brained scheme if Shirou gives you some CAKE!?"
"Shirou?" asked Saber. "If I agree to this hare-brained scheme, may I have some cake?"
Shirou smiled kindly. "Of course, Saber."
"Yes," Saber said to Rin.
"HMMPH!!" Rin crossed her arms, closed her eyes and huffed. "Well, you can count ME out! I can think of at least seventeen things I'd rather do alone with Archer in my room, than to come to—"
"Are you sure you won't come?" Shirou asked. "You'd be missed. And besides, I'm ordering in fried chicken for the party too. It wouldn't be a Japanese Christmas party without the fried chicken."
Rin opened one eye and regarded Shirou skeptically. "Colonel's Original Recipe?" she asked quietly.
"Absolutely," Shirou said. "Only the best for my friends."
Rin hung her head and sighed. "Oh, Saber," she said sadly. "BOTH of us are so EASY."
Preparations for Shirou's holiday party were completed, and the evening of the party had come. The guests were due to arrive shortly.
Shirou walked up to Archer. Rin's Servant was daintily sipping tea from an ornate cup and saucer, and nibbling at a small slice of vegetarian quiche, in a way that was incongruously yet undeniably masculine.
"Food OK?" Shirou asked nervously.
Archer dabbed at his chin with a napkin. "Excellent. Relax, Shirou. You have prepared well. Even Rin is pleased with your efforts, though she be far too tsundere to admit it."
"Oh, good," Shirou said. "Good... uh, nice weather we're having, huh?"
"Gorgeous," Archer said. "And you have now engaged me in sufficient conversation to be regarded as a polite host. You may avoid me for the rest of the evening, if you wish."
"Oh, good," Shirou said again. "Enjoy."
Saber walked up. "Shirou? By any chance, did you rent a, um, 'ka-ra-o-ke machine' for the party?"
"I'm sorry, but no, I didn't," Shirou said gently. "I was hoping this would be a party where everybody could just mingle and visit."
"I see," Saber said, as Rin and Sakura walked up behind her. "We were thinking, it might be fun if we sang our favorite song for everybody. We have been practicing it at length."
Shirou sighed. "Yeah," he said, "the three of you probably don't need to sing it six hundred times a day..."
Rin, Saber and Sakura suddenly struck a pose, smiled cheerfully, and broke into song, in perfect harmony. "aishiau futari, shiawase no sora, tonari dooshi anata to atashi sakuranbo—"
"MOU IKKAI!!" shouted Illya.
"Oh, hello, Illya," said Shirou. "I didn't see you come in."
"That's 'cause I left Berserker outside," Illya said, "instead of busting a big hole in your house to bring him in with me."
"I see," Shirou said. "That was very thoughtful of you, Illya."
"Oh, Shirou!" said Illya. "Shirou! Shirou!! Shirou? Shirou! Shirou!! Shirou!? Shirou! Shirou!!"
"Yes, Illya?" said Shirou. "Did you want to tell me something?"
Illya stood at attention, and spoke in a halting rehearsed voice. "Thank you, um, very much, um, for inviting me, um, to your, um, party."
"Well, aren't YOU a good little girl," a pleased Shirou said. Illya beamed.
Rin, Saber and Sakura glared at Illya from behind. "She is," Rin growled, "when she isn't trying to have ALL of us CRUSHED and MANGLED!!"
Illya turned around, savagely gave the finger to the other three girls, and then turned back to Shirou with another bright innocent smile.
Shirou heard someone else bang loudly at the door. "Oh GOOD," he said loudly, "more guests have arrived. Maybe their additional presence will ease the suddenly tense mood—"
Gilgamesh strutted into the room, also not waiting for Shirou to invite him in. "YO YO YO!!" he shouted. "WHASSUP, MONGRELS!?"
"...or NOT," Shirou said.
"Did you HAVE to invite HIM too?" a visibly pained Rin asked.
"Actually," Shirou said, "he was the only one I DIDN'T invite."
"I do not think that Gilgamesh has EVER been invited to ANYTHING," Saber said. "But he always seems to show up where he is not wanted. Which is everywhere, I suppose."
Gilgamesh excitedly waved to Archer, as if he were across the street instead of in the same room. "How's it HANGIN', 'Bone Of My Sword'?" he yelled.
Archer arched an eyebrow, sighed, and answered quietly in a resigned yet manly voice. "Did you mean 'bane'?"
Gilgamesh comically grinned and shrugged, as if he were performing in a vaudeville act. "DUNNO!!" he said loudly. "LOL!!"
"Oh," Archer muttered to himself, "that routine NEVER gets old..."
Gilgamesh slapped Shirou's back hard enough to knock him off balance and send him stumbling across the room. And then, Gilgamesh squeezed in between Rin and Saber, and draped his arms over their shoulders. "You call THIS a PARTY!?" he said to the girls. "Why, I've seen more life in a Mesopotamian boneyard!"
"Perhaps I could send you back to one," Saber suggested, "as a long-term resident."
"You certainly haven't changed," Gilgamesh said with genuine affection. "It's simply LOVELY to see you again, you FRIGID BITCH!!"
Saber returned his regards pleasantly. "I wish you the happiest of holidays, you ARROGANT BASTARD!!"
"So," Gilgamesh said, "what say you and 'twin-tails' here help me get this pah-tee STARTED? I've shown you MY Gate Of Babylon. Why don't both of you show me YOURS?" He hugged Rin and Saber more tightly, and began to reach around their necks, lowering his hands into the Danger Zone.
Rin and Saber glanced at each other, and nodded. They both very suddenly brought their outside legs up and around, and kneed Gilgamesh in the groin in perfect unison. Not only did they deliver the terrible blow with twice the usual force, but also at a 90° angle that added an extra dimension of crushing pain.
Gilgamesh raised his arms without otherwise moving, releasing the girls. "Oh, MAN," he said out loud to himself, blankly staring forward. "I LOVE it when they 'play hard to get'."
Shirou returned as the girls stormed away. "How on Earth are you still STANDING after... THAT!?" an astounded Shirou asked.
"I've been kicked in the crotch by angry women so many times throughout all history," Gilgamesh said proudly, "that I've learned to multi-task during the excruciating agony."
"...ah," said Shirou, not knowing what else to say.
"So tell me, boy," Gilgamesh said, continuing along the path of his one-track mind. "Are ya gettin' any hot Arturia action yet?"
Shirou blinked. "Uuhhh beg your pardon?"
"YOU know," Gilgamesh said. He did a wildly inaccurate Saber impersonation, using a painfully fake falsetto. "Oh YES, Shirou!! YES!! You ARE my Master!!"
"...you lost me," Shirou said.
"Oh, come on, boy!" Gilgamesh elbowed him. "PHOAR, nudge nudge, wink wink, know what I mean, say no more?"
"Can you dumb it down for me?" Shirou asked earnestly.
Gilgamesh grabbed Shirou's head with both hands, stared into his eyes, and spoke very slowly. "ARE. YOU. HAVE. ING. SEX. YOU. ALL. IN. TAR. COARSE. WITH. SAY. BRR. YOU. MOE. RON—"
"O, how the King Of Heroes has fallen!" a familiar voice suddenly sneered. "When I last knew him, he could easily seduce ANY woman... or at least, any STUPID woman. But now, I find him reduced to molesting girly nancy-boys!"
Gilgamesh released Shirou in order to better insult Lancer. "Well, well, if it isn't Sir Lance-A-Little. Why don't you run away home and POLISH your POLE."
Lancer and Gilgamesh glared at each other, and audibly growled. And then, they suddenly embraced and slapped each other's backs, laughing loudly.
Shirou found that Bazett had come in with Lancer. "Oh, hi!" he said. "I'm so glad you both could make it! Although, you're over-dressed for the occasion (as usual), and you didn't have to bring a bottle, and HOLY MACKEREL that's the BIGGEST bottle of whiskey I've EVER SEEN!!"
"This is just for my boy-o," Bazett said with an apologetic smile. "I was hoping that we'd arrive before 'Goldie', so that I could get some liquor in 'im first, and mellow him out a bit."
Shirou noticed that Lancer had got Gilgamesh in a headlock. "Mmm. Well, don't worry. My house is fully insured."
"By the way," Bazett asked, "where are you putting the coats?"
"Oh, don't worry about THAT!" Shirou said. "Let me get that—"
"No, no," a blushing Bazett said, lowering her voice. "I need to know where the coat room is, my own self. You see, the SECOND part of my plan to keep Lancer out of trouble is to let him drag me back to the coat room for some clumsy half-drunken party coat-room nookie, later in the evening."
"...oh," Shirou said. "In that case, you can use the second room on the left for whatever it is you need to do. That's next-door to where I'm putting the coats. If you're not too noisy, you shouldn't be disturbed by folks going back for their purses and cameras."
"Thank you, Shirou," a touched Bazett said. "You are a MOST considerate host."
Sakura found an unusually subdued Taiga slouching by the uncut Christmas cake, morosely dabbing her finger in the extra icing along one edge.
"What's wrong, Fuji-nee?" Sakura asked kindly. "You should have made a spectacle of yourself three or four times by now."
"Have you heard the joke about how women in Japan are like Christmas cakes?" Taiga asked, without looking up from the cake.
"I think so," Sakura said. "Is that the one that goes, no one wants either of them after the 25th... Oh no! You're not worried about THAT, are you!?"
"Can't help it," Taiga said miserably. "Your Fuji-nee has turned into a stale piece of cake, sitting here alone... unwanted... forgotten... until it's time to take out the trash..."
"Please don't say that!" Sakura said earnestly. "You have so many friends! And I'm sure there's someone out there for—"
"For a thirty-ish tomboy," Taiga said, "with no domestic skills or fashion sense, working at a low-paying job that a sensible woman would only keep until she lands herself a husband? Yeah, right. You might as well believe in magic, while you're at it...
"Oh, I'm sorry, sweetie. I shouldn't take it out on you. But you know, I DO envy you, Sakura."
Sakura blinked. "Me?"
"Yeah. Most girls your age wouldn't be mature enough to have an open relationship with an older woman like Rider. Mind you, I didn't approve at first— but only because of the age difference—"
"What? Oh, NO!" Sakura giggled. "Rider and I are only VERY good FRIENDS."
Taiga shot Sakura a silent "oh, come ON!!" look.
"Well, alright," Sakura admitted. "The truth is, Rider is only here in this world for me, and we share a bond that few beings share, and we're always there for each other in a pinch..."
Reminded of her own plight, Taiga slumped over again. "I'm very HAPPY for both of you," she said, in a voice bereft of life and hope.
"And I wouldn't be truthful," Sakura babbled nervously, "if I didn't admit to an extensive amount of sexual exploration—"
Taiga went wild-eyed and clutched her poor head, as if she were in physical pain. "SO LONELY!!" she gasped.
Sakura bit her lip. "Um... everything I say now is only going to hurt you more... isn't it?"
"Mmm-HMM," Taiga whimpered. She was already struggling to hold back the water-works.
"Then I'd better go," Sakura said. "I'd better go find Rider, anyway. She might get sad if she's left alone at a party like this for too— I'm sorry! I'm sorry! I didn't mean it! I— um— uh— BYE!!"
The tender-hearted Sakura tried to put as much distance as she could between herself and Taiga, as quickly as she could, but she still winced in honest sympathy when her poor Fuji-nee finally lost it.
"BAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAWWWW!!!!!!" said Taiga.
Souichirou and Caster arrived shortly after Lancer and Bazett. Neither of them were gregarious by nature, and after helping themselves to plates of party food, they retired to a quiet corner of the room. Souichirou sat rigidly, arms crossed, and watched the party with a Gendo-esque glare.
In contrast, Caster completely draped herself over Souichirou in a vaguely dangerous way, like a wet towel left to smolder over a hot radiator. "Aahn, Souichirou-sama!" she lilted in her best waifu voice. "You seem so tense! Even more so than usual!"
"I don't approve of this kind of carrying-on," Souichirou growled. "I don't approve of the way these young people are comporting themselves at ALL."
Illya slowly danced past, singing to herself, in a way that was absolutely nothing like that of an innocent little girl. "La la la... gonna kill 'em ALL... tear 'em limb from limb... crush all their bones and spill their intestines... bathe in blood and gore... la la la..."
"I think I see what you mean," Caster said thoughtfully. "That was simply TERRIBLE!"
"That child should NOT be UP THIS LATE," Souichirou said. "She should be at home in bed, dreaming her sweet dreams of horrific slaughter."
"That WAS a nice song," Caster thought out loud. "I wonder if she made it up herself, or if it is available on iTunes?"
"When *I* was her age," a suddenly talkative Souichirou grumbled, "they didn't let young people run around and stay up late! I had to work long hard hours, killing unsuspecting people with my bare hands, to earn my keep! And then, I was always put to bed and mercilessly beaten unconscious by nine o'clock!..."
"Well, never mind, dear. For tonight, we are guests, so let's try to enjoy the party." Caster picked up an appetizer on a toothpick, and held it up to her Master's mouth. "Say aah," she said lovingly.
Souichirou, once again silent, did not react at all, except for skeptically rolling his eyes down to Caster's hand.
"aah," Caster said again patiently.
After another moment's hesitation, Souichirou opened his mouth, reluctantly allowing his stunningly beautiful companion to hand-feed him in a way that would make most men homicidally jealous.
"S'good?" Caster asked.
"S'good," Souichirou said.
Rin excused herself, left the party, and walked along an empty hallway, searching for a quiet corner to collect her thoughts. She happened to find Saber, who also seemed to be taking a break from the party. Shirou's Servant was silently standing before an open window, illuminated in a spot of moonlight in the darkened hallway. She had bowed her head and clasped her hands, as if she were in meditation or prayer.
Rin shuddered, despite herself. She knew that Saber was unusually young for a Servant in apparent physical age, and she imagined that Saber was also unusually young in actual historical age. But the moonlight gave Saber an air of otherworldly timelessness— an air that gave the usually confident Rin pause.
"...oh," Saber said, looking up. "Hello, Rin. Is something wrong?"
"Oh, no," Rin said quickly. "Sorry to disturb you. I was just catching my breath. Looks like you were, too."
"Yes," Saber said distantly, turning back to the window again. "I am not used to social affairs such as these. I spent most of my brief mortal life on guard, ready to fight for my life at any moment. And since I was summoned to the Holy Grail War, I have been similarly preoccupied. This party is one of the very few times I have NOT been so preoccupied."
"Mmm," Rin said. "I know how you feel. I often let my competitive streak get the better of me, and I can be quick to think the worst...
"Perhaps that's a thought for both of us, Saber. Perhaps we shouldn't live every moment of our lives as if someone is trying to kill us."
"Perhaps," Saber said. "But I must admit... I find it difficult to trust others."
"Saber? You can trust me, if you want to," an unusually friendly Rin said. "At least, until you and Archer are the only Servants left. And I'm pretty sure you can trust Shirou utterly and completely."
"Yes," Saber said. "Thank you, Rin."
"Well!" Rin said. "Let's get back to the party, shall we? We wouldn't want to miss out on the cake!"
"OH!" said Saber. "I had almost forgotten! Christmas cake may yet be mine, this glorious night!" She raised her face to the moonlit window, closed her eyes, and let her mouth slowly fall open, as if she were in spiritual rapture... or a much more physical rapture.
Rin sweat-dropped. "Ohh-KAY," she said out loud to herself, "DEFINITELY weirded out by the cake thing... Uh, Saber? You DO know you can just buy a cake at the store any time you want, right?"
Berserker and Assassin sat in a dark corner behind Shirou's house, impervious to the cold December night air. Berserker had been left behind by Illya, due to the inadequate dimensions of Shirou's front door, while Assassin was far too mysterious and enigmatic to mingle for more than a few minutes at a time.
To pass the time, Assassin had struck up a somewhat one-sided conversation with his once and future enemy. "...and I find those arguments frame the critical inherent shortcomings of existential phenomenology. What do you think?"
"*grunt*" said Berserker.
Assassin gazed up at the sky. "Ah... you and I are more alike than one might first think. You, who have been robbed of your memories and your past... along with most of your thought processes, apparently... and myself, who might or might not have ever had a past... whose very existence in this modern world is quite possibly a meaningless mistake..."
"*grunt*" said Berserker.
"...but enough of these things," a resigned Assassin said. "I suppose that I should join the party again. Would you like for me to bring back another half a dozen plates of fried chicken for you?"
"*grunt*" said Berserker.
"Alright. I shall return shortly. I hope that I may then talk with you further, my friend."
Berserker watched the funny long-haired man walk away. Since She Who Must Be Obeyed was still gone, he busied himself with his own personal challenge of counting all the fingers on his left hand. He was pleased with his progress; just last week, he had achieved Three.
"Have you seen Rider?" Shirou asked Rin. "Sakura was wondering where she was."
"I think Rider just came in... yes, there she is." Rin pointed her out.
"Wait— are you SURE that's Rider?" Shirou asked.
"No," Rin said.
Shirou and Rin watched the tall statuesque woman (who somehow didn't seem like Rider at all) make her way to Sakura's side, and wait patiently while Sakura chatted with someone else.
Eventually, Sakura turned to Rider— and froze. "Ruh— Rider!?" she squeaked, also not believing her eyes.
Rider held out a small gift-wrapped box of expensive chocolates. "Merry Christmas, Sakura," she said shyly.
Sakura accepted the gift without looking down. Her eyes were fixed on Rider's head. "Your HAIR! It's GONE!!"
Rider raised one hand to flick her now-bobbed hair behind her ear. "What do you think? I haven't worn it this short since— well, I don't know if I've EVER worn it this short."
Sakura finally looked down at the chocolates in her hands. "Did you SELL it to buy this present for ME!? Like in that short story by O. Henry!? Oh, RIDER!! Why didn't you—"
"What? NO!" Rider held a hand on Sakura's shoulder to comfort her distraught Master. "That's not it at all! I bought that with money from my part-time job shelving books at the library. No, I just had my hair done for the party. I was ready for a change, any... Sakura!?"
Sakura was even more upset. Sweet tears began to trickle down her cheeks. "But, Rider! *sniff* I LOVED your hair! *sniff* I loved to wash it, an' brush it, an' braid it, an' everything! *sniff* It was SO beautiful! *sniff* An' now it's GONE!!" Sakura hung her head, held her face in her hands, and sobbed.
Rider grimaced, both for her dear Master's distress, and for the public scene Sakura was causing. "Oh, I'm sorry! Please don't cry, Sakura! I'm so sorry! I should have asked you first! Oh, I just didn't think—"
Sakura very suddenly stopped crying. "NO," she growled, "you DIDN'T think, DID you!?" A chilling miasma filled the air around Sakura's body. She dropped her hands, revealing dead soulless eyes and evil crimson patterns on the left side of her jaw.
"OH SHI—" said Rider.
Sakura raised one arm, now clad in black ribbon with red pin-stripes, and held a clammy hand to Rider's cheek. She laughed in an extremely evil cute way. "*ufufufu*... Rider-chan? It saddens me that you did not think of me. I think we need to spend some 'quality time' together. What do YOU think?"
Rider stammered, knowing that her answer meant the difference between an eternity of torment and a somewhat shorter period of torment. "Yuh— yuh— yes?..."
Sakura condescendingly patted Rider's cheek once or twice, and then grabbed her by her now-exposed ear and began to lead her away. Being much taller, Rider awkwardly stumbled after her. "Ow ow ow ow ow ow," said Rider.
"Excuse us, please!" a still-polite Sakura said unnecessarily, as the other guests gave her a VERY wide berth. "We're so sorry to leave the party early, but we're going to have our OWN party! *ufufufu*..."
Shirou and Rin watched the darkened Sakura lead Rider away with a shared sense of guilty relief. They were both good and kind people, but their natural reaction to the scene was identical— thank GOD that isn't ME being led away.
"...yikes," said Shirou. "What do you think she'll do to poor Rider?"
Rin swallowed heavily to calm herself. "Uhm... do you remember when you and I peeked at Rider and Sakura in the "Rider-san To Asobou" doujinshi?"
"OH MY GOD!!" Shirou gasped. "Do you think Sakura's about to do all those things to poor Rider again now!?"
"No," Rin said. "Sakura seemed quite put out. I'm afraid that Rider won't get off THAT easy, THIS time."
Caster had gone back to the food table for a fresh supply with which to smother Souichirou. Preoccupied with her happy little waifu fantasies at the crowded table, she accidentally bumped into another woman who was busy helping herself to the free food a bit too eagerly.
"Oh! I beg your pardon..." Caster paused. "I DO beg your pardon, but do I know you?"
"WHAT!? NO!!" the woman said, as if she had many embarrassing failures in her past. "I mean, sorry, no, I'm afraid not. It wasn't me. I wasn't anywhere NEAR there at the time! You can't prove ANYthing!!"
Caster narrowed her eyes. "Those markings on your face... those are the markings of a daemon of the Nifelheim system. You are... Mara, are you not?"
"Aw, nuts," Mara said. "I have GOT to get some laser surgery done on those—"
Caster giggled. "Please do not be alarmed. I know OF you, but we have not met. You might recognize me more easily if I lowered my own defenses, just for a moment..." She silently mouthed a spell.
Mara frowned, as if she were trying to detect a telepathic signal. And then, her face lit up. "Well, spin my CD! You're Me— Whoah, 'hold it, Mara'! You're here in town for that Holy Grail War thing, right? That'd explain the secrecy act."
"How very professional of you," an impressed Caster said. "Yes, for now, I am 'Caster'."
"Pleased ta make yer acquaintance," Mara said, as the two women stepped away from the food table, and continued their conversation in a less hectic spot. "So, Holy Grail War, huh? How's that workin' out for ya?"
"The future holds many opportunities," Caster said, as if she were bragging on a business plan, "and I have positioned myself well to take advantage of them. And yourself? Are you involved in this campaign as well?"
"No, no," Mara said around a big mouthful of fried chicken. "THAT particular unholy mess has nothing to do with Nifelheim. No, I'm just doing some freelance work, as usual. Making bargains that backfire... causing trouble... being generally annoying. But I gotta tell ya, it's a struggle just to hold on to market share, what with all the paranormal activity, these days."
"Are you looking for more work at the moment?" Caster asked.
"Ooohh, maybe," Mara said, being careful not to appear too eager. "Ya know somebody who's hiring?"
"I've been thinking of farming out some work, myself. I already have one subcontractor, working full time on-site. But I've just been so BUSY! Mind you, it would be a short-term assignment, at least to start. And I need someone who's self-reliant and results-oriented."
"Hmm... the Holy Grail War?" Mara rubbed her neck in thought. "Are there any Norse entities in this round? In the interest of full disclosure, I've had uh, mixed results with regards to my native mythology."
"None that I know of, dear," Caster said reassuringly. "We're a bit heavy on the Greek, myself included. But apart from that, they're all lightweights."
"In that case, I'm your girl." Mara produced an over-sized business card. "Let's not spoil the party with business. Just give me a call when you're free."
Caster held up a card of her own. "If YOU'RE free, why don't you stop by the temple, tomorrow or the next day? I'll tell my other man to expect you, so that he doesn't disembowel you on sight."
"Much appreciated," Mara said, as the women exchanged cards. "Hey, I'm glad I ran into you, after all."
"It pays to network," Caster noted. "Um, if you are not engaged at the moment— may I introduce you to my Master? Aahn, such a wonderful man!..."
Mara smelled a familiar Belldandy-esque smell of waifu, and wrinkled her nose in distaste. "Uh, no offense, but is he some scrawny loser mechanical engineer, or something?"
"Far from it," Caster said proudly. "He retired from a brief career as a ruthless assassin to teach ETHICS."
"No foolin'?" Mara said. "I like your style, hon. And I'm not just sucking up to a prospective employer."
The two women continued to chat as they slowly walked away. "I like YOUR style as well," Caster said. "I am quite partial to cloaks, myself. And I find it refreshing to see a villainess who dresses sensibly... as opposed to a certain eirei who stuffs herself into a tight and skimpy strapless goth-punk cocktail dress."
"Cloaks ARE old-fashioned, but they'll never go out of style," Mara said. "And there's nothing that says 'EEEEEEEEVIL' like a good ol' fashioned cloak!..."
Archer was discussing technique with a genuinely interested Gilgamesh and Lancer. By unspoken agreement, weapons were not to be brandished at the party, and so Archer held out his empty hands, and repeatedly swung his arms as if he were a golf instructor.
"...you see," Archer said, "if you hold the blade like THIS... and give it a slight twist as you swing it, like THIS?... You'll get a nice splatter of blood with your kill."
"I've tried that," Gilgamesh said, "but it's never worked very well for me. I think it's because of the unique shape of a falchion. I've 'only' got a few dozen of those. Say, would you—"
"For the thousandth time," Archer growled, "I am NOT going to trace a copy of Kanshou and Bakuya for your Gate Of Babylon!"
Gilgamesh whined like a child denied the last baseball card needed to complete his collection. "Aw, C'MON! Whad'ya want for 'em!? Look, I'll do a ten-to-one trade!..."
"You sword-slingers are all th' same," a somewhat sloshed Lancer said. "Wastin' so much time tryin' ta decide which blade ta use, ya get carved up before ya know it. Gimme ONE good Spear Of Impalin' Barbed Death, and I'll shishbako... shishkaka... I'll SHTAB the lot of ya!!"
Bazett walked up, and held Lancer's arm. "Lancer, dear? Don't you think you've had enough for one night?"
"What are YOU on about, woman!?" Lancer said with equal parts affection and annoyance. "YOU'RE the one who's been pressin' drinks in me hand since we GOT here!!"
"Goodness," Bazett said with a straight face, "I DON'T know what you're TALKING about."
"But ta answer yer question? No, I HAVEN'T had enough o' what YOU'VE got. I'll NEVER get me enough o' that!" Lancer pulled his arm away from Bazett, put it around her shoulders, and began to guide her away. "Excuse me, gentlemen. And Gilgamesh. I gotta give my woman some attention f'r awhile."
As Bazett let herself be guided away, she glanced back at Archer and Gilgamesh with a chilling "JUST AS PLANNED" grin. Archer and Gilgamesh involuntarily shuddered.
"That poor man," Gilgamesh said sadly. "He does NOT know what he's dealing with."
"The balance of power between Master and Servant is a delicate thing," Archer said. "If it should swing too far in the Master's favor—"
"*ahem*!!" said Rin, who had also happened to walk up at an opportune moment in the conversation.
Archer didn't miss a beat. "...then Master and Servant must work TOGETHER to re-establish balance and live in harmony."
"Not a bad save," an impressed Rin said. "Not bad at all. I'll give it eight out of ten."
Gilgamesh tut-tutted. "And even the Epic Spirit Archer is put in his place. This is a sad, SAD day. You canNOT let women GET to you... like..."
Rin suddenly went from tsun to dere, as if she had flicked a switch. "Um, Archer?" she said in a sad little girl's voice. "Is he right? I mean, if I'm holding you back?... we can just cancel our contract, and..."
Archer quickly realized that Rin's DRAMA wasn't directed at HIM. He played his part flawlessly. "Dearest Tohsaka Rin. If I have given offense, I offer my sincerest apologies. I could not have wished for a more talented, intelligent, or beautiful Master."
"Oh... ARCHER!..." A sniffling Rin threw herself at Archer and hugged him tightly. Archer smiled fondly and patted her head.
Gilgamesh frowned, crossed his arms and tapped one finger. As an awkward silence stretched out, he coughed and shuffled his feet. He looked around (for Saber, Archer and Rin both imagined). And then, he finally slinked away, in the general direction of the Christmas tree, apparently meaning to sulk behind it for awhile.
Rin stood away from Archer and cackled fiendishly. "Hee hee HEE!! Oh, we SCHOOLED that jerk!! Thanks, Archer! I was hoping you'd play along."
Archer bowed slightly. "My compliments on YOUR performance. It is remarkable, perhaps even slightly chilling, how you can draw upon your multiple personalities on demand."
"It's a gift," Rin said without much humility at all.
Shirou and Saber reunited near the food table, and surveyed the party with satisfaction. "Well," Shirou said, "It looks like a successful evening, if I do say so myself."
Saber agreed. "This was a fine hare-brained scheme, Shirou."
"Oh, that reminds me! I have a promise to keep." Shirou cleanly cut a large slice of Christmas cake, smoothly transferred it to a colorful paper plate, and presented it to Saber with a flourish. "Delicious Cake for my Precious Servant," he said gallantly.
The usually stoic Saber visibly fought to control her emotions as she accepted the cake. "Oh, SHIROU!" she whispered, her lovely emerald eyes brimming with tears of joy. "...I LOVE you!"
Shirou held a friendly arm around her shoulders to steady her. "I haven't been able to spend much time with you, this evening," he said, "but I hope you've enjoyed yourself."
Saber held her cake in both hands, not yet ready to consume the treasure. "I have, Shirou," she said. "In fact, I am hard pressed to imagine how it could have been better."
Gilgamesh staggered past, impotently waving his arms in the air and cursing his ancestors. A small furry creature resembling a mole was tightly clinging to his face and savagely gnawing at his eyebrows. He found the nearest wall, and in a futile attempt to knock the animal off, he began to beat his head against the wall.
"This day has brought me MANY blessings," Saber said reverently.
"Merry Christmas, Saber," said Shirou. "Merry Christmas to us ALL."
"And to us all," Saber said, "a good night."
"YEARRRGH!!" said Gilgamesh.
"Sakura, PLEASE! *hanh* No more!! *hanh* I BEG you!! *hanh*..."
"Oh, poor little Rider-chan. If only you hadn't cut off most of your hair, we wouldn't have had to invent all these NEW ways to use my hair-brush on you. Still, you OBVIOUSLY enjoyed MOST of them."
"*hanh* *hanh* *hanh*... I know that darkness has perverted your heart— in more ways than one— but can you not yet find it in your heart to forgive me for my thoughtlessness?"
"Oh, NO! We have SO many things to REPURPOSE! For example, look at all these alligator hair-clips! With so much less hair, we'll just have to find OTHER places to clamp them!!"
"Don't be TOO afraid, Rider-chan. I'M ONLY DOING THIS BECAUSE I LOVE YOU. Now then, let's put the first clip... oh... HERE!"
"HAAAAAAAAAUUUUUUUUGH!! *hanh* *hanh* *hanh*..."
Early the next morning, Rin walked through an empty kitchen, and opened the refrigerator. She blinked a few times in surprise, and then she face-palmed. "Oh, GOOD GRIEF!!" she said loudly to herself.
Archer was instantly at her side. "Is something wrong?" he asked in a calm soothing voice.
Rin opened the refrigerator wider for Archer's benefit. "Just look at this!" she said. "Shirou's refrigerator is full of mashed potatoes!"
Archer also blinked a few times. "That is... UNIQUE," he said. "Perhaps the restaurant mistook the catering order, and delivered unwanted side orders with the chicken."
"More likely, Shirou screwed up the order," Rin said, as she pulled out one large container and opened it. "Either way— what in Heaven's Feel are we going to do with all these mashed potatoes?"
"At least we'll have plenty of potassium in our diet," Archer noted.
Rin scooped out a taste with her index finger, and licked it up. "Mmm... they're pretty good. Want a taste?"
To Rin's surprise, Archer gently grasped her hand, used her own finger to scoop out another taste, and then licked the mashed potatoes directly from her finger, much more slowly and thoroughly than was absolutely necessary.
Rin blushed furiously... but then, she smiled deviously. "Archer? Are you pondering what I'm pondering?"
"I think so, Rin. But isn't the author just shamelessly pandering to all of the 'Archer X Rin' fan-girls?"
"Who cares?" Rin held up the container. "No one else is around. Just me... you... and several liters of mashed potatoes. Whad'ya think?"
"It sounds DELICIOUS," Archer said.
Rin and Archer grabbed as many containers as they could carry, and carried them over to the microwave, to warm them up before applying them. Rin gently teased Archer as they worked. "I must say, you don't seem like a 'meat and potatoes' kind of man, what with your standing around at holiday parties, chewing the quiche."
Ever capable, Archer stepped behind his lovely Master, and caressed her while speaking in the requisite food innuendo. "Oh, I do enjoy mashed potatoes when they're served with the right DISH. For example, a succulent breast..." He reached around.
"OH!" said Rin.
"Or perhaps," Archer said, "a tender thigh..." He reached down.
"OH!" Rin said again.
Archer nibbled Rin's neck while continuing to do wonderful things with his hands. Rin sighed softly and let her head roll back. "Why, my mouth is positively WATERING," Archer said between kisses, "just THINKING about it."
Rin purred with delight. "I LOVE a man with a healthy appetite," she whispered.
Shirou was cleaning up after the party. Saber was helping him, partly out of a sense of guilt for not helping him earlier with the Christmas tree.
"...so much work to do," a determined Saber said out loud to herself.
"It's to be expected," Shirou said cheerfully. "It was a large party... by the way, do you know what happened to the extra mashed potatoes? It's a relief to be rid of them, but still..."
Saber looked away nervously, but silently and secretly wished that there had also been a surplus of cake frosting. But then, she noticed something that had previously escaped her attention. "Oh... Shirou? Your doorjamb has sprouted leaves."
"What?...oh." Shirou chuckled. "I forgot about that. And I guess nobody else noticed it. That's a sprig of mistletoe."
"The vampire plant?" Saber asked. "Why did you put a parasitic plant that bears poisonous fruit on your doorjamb?"
"Actually," Shirou said, "that's a Christmas tradition from YOUR country. But it came along well after your time. Do me a favor? Stand under the mistletoe."
"Very well." Saber walked over to the doorway. "What happens now?"
Shirou walked up to her, and held her shoulders. "This," he said, "is what we do under the mistletoe."
He kissed her.
"...I see," Saber said after the kiss, determined not to show how flustered she had suddenly become. "What a strange tradition. These are very strange times, Shirou."
Shirou fondly brushed the hair away from Saber's eyes. "Are they so bad?" he asked quietly.
"No," Saber said. "Shirou?... we have much work to do now."
"Yes, you're right." Shirou turned away to resume tidying. "I hope you won't mind left-overs for lunch. We've got quite a bit of party food left over, even besides the mashed potatoes. And I don't know about you, but I'm going to take the afternoon off and relax."
"...perhaps we could take a bath after lunch," Saber suggested hesitantly.
"Yeah, that might not be a bad idea," Shirou said. "I've already got quiche stains on this shirt—"
A somewhat embarrassed Saber patiently repeated herself. "NO, Shirou. WE should TAKE a BATH."
"...you lost me," Shirou said.
Saber sighed. "Oh, never mind. I fear that I am as unskilled at flirting as you are at recognizing it."
Shirou laughed out loud. "I'm sorry, Saber. I was thinking about other things... A long hot relaxing bath with my beautiful Servant would be lovely."
"If we put the vampire plant over the bathroom door," Saber asked, "Would it help to keep you from running away when you saw me unclothed, as you first did?"
"THERE! You SEE?" Shirou said proudly. "That was pretty good! I'm even getting a little bit turned on from that teasing!"
"I rather enjoyed it myself," Saber said happily.