Winter had come to Gensoukyou, that time of year when snow turned the verdant valley into Whiterock's Wonderland. Those who thrived in the cold rejoiced, and those who did not came up with ever more feeble excuses to remain indoors.
Huddled in a clearing at the foot of Youkai Mountain lay the home of two out-of-season goddesses, who were presently engaged in the time-honoured tradition of lounging under the kotatsu and eating baked sweet potatoes.
"This is the life," Aki Minoriko declared, mouth half full of sweet potato. "There's just something about winter that makes you feel so cozy."
"Speak for yourself. The only thing winter makes me feel is useless," Aki Shizuha replied, face glum and chin resting on the table.
"Don't be like that! We've done our bit for the year, so now's out chance to relax until next year!" Minoriko took another bite of her food and swallowed before continuing. "We're lucky we only have to work three months of the year, you know. Think of all the humans who have to keep working through this."
Shizuha opened her mouth to reply, but whatever she had to say was lost in the sound of the door being thrown open and a great, bearded figure clad in red trimmed with white planting two mighty boots in the room.
"Ho ho ho, Merry Christmas!"
Minoriko turned her head to avoid showering her sister with hot tea. "Puwaaah! Hina!? Why on Earth are you wearing a beard!?"
"Because I'm Santa Claus!" Kagiyama Hina declared, putting her hands on her hips.
"Has your brain frozen over or something?" Shizuha asked, staring blankly at her fellow goddess.
"Today is Christmas Day, and I have come to bring the gift of Christmas cheer to all the good girls of Gensoukyou!" Hina continued.
"Eeyup, not a single marble left," Shizuha said. "I wonder if Eientei can cure gods?"
"Can you close the door at least?" Minoriko asked.
Hina smiled radiantly. "Nope. Because you're coming with me!"
"Not happening!" Shizuha grumbled, scooting further under the kotatsu.
"Oh. I suppose I'd better get some warmer clothes on then," Minoriko said.
"I don't have warmer clothes!" Shizuha complained.
"Don't worry, you'll be nice and warm in my ribbons!" Hina said, still beaming.
"Oh no you d-" Shizuha began, but she was too late.
Hina raised her arms and two enormous ribbons burst forth. The right one snaked under the kotatsu and wrapped a shrieking Shizuha up like a cocoon, while the left wound itself around Minoriko as she calmly popped the last of her sweet potato into her mouth.
A swift tug later and Hina had one goddess-bundle under each arm.
"We wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas and a happy new year!" Hina sang to herself as she marched off through the snow.
Today was shaping up to be the best Christmas Morichika Rinnosuke ever had. The sun was up, breakfast was long gone and there was still no sign of any unwanted 'customers' to distract him from his relaxing day of reading.
That was, of course, until someone began to knock loudly at his door. Mr. Morichika sighed, set his book down and made his way to the front of the store.
"I'm sorry, but we're closed to... day..." he began, but trailed off as he laid eyes on a lanky blond girl in the most ridiculous outfit he had ever seen.
"...who are you, and why are you dressed as a moose?"
"I'm not a moose, I'm a reindeer!"
"Those are moose antlers, not reindeer antlers," Rinnosuke pointed out.
"Whatever! It's Christmas, and this is my reindeer outfit!"
"That still doesn't explain why you're wearing a cowbell -"
"Because you always need more cowbell!" The girl shook the bell at her neck loudly.
"- and a... Clown Nose?"
"It's a RED nose. Seriously, don't you people ever get out of your little bubble world? I'm Rudolph!"
Rinnosuke ignored her, still staring at her nose. "...its purpose is 'Honk Honk'? What in the world is that supposed mean?"
A grin spread across the girl's face. "Why don't you give it a squeeze and find out?"
A sudden gut feeling told Rinnosuke that he would be much better off if he didn't do as the girl suggested.
...but Rinnosuke was nothing if not curious. He squeezed the nose.
A nearby statue of Colonel Sanders exploded into concrete confetti with the sound of a thousand winebottles being uncorked at once. Rinnosuke instinctively flinched away, shielding his face with his arms. The girl just stood there, grinning from ear to ear, completely unperturbed as her left side was showered with rocky debris.
Rinnosuke straightened up, dusted himself off, adjusted his glasses and tried to act as though nothing had happened.
"Ahem. As I was saying, we're closed for the day, so I'm afraid you'll have to -"
"Don't worry, I'm not here to shop! I'm here for you." The girl's voice dropped a full octave for the last word, fairly dripping with unpleasant possibilities. "There is to be a party at the shrine, and you are to attend!"
Rinnosuke took the opportunity to massage his temples. "Why couldn't she have just sent me an invitation?"
"Because then you'd never get there on time!" The girl declared, cheerful and full of innocence once more. "You can't fly, correct?"
"It is not one of my areas of expertise, no."
"Then step right this way!"
The girl seized Rinnosuke's hand and began dragging him away from his store. She had a surprising amount of strength in her lithe frame, and a surplus of grip in her spidery fingers.
A youkai, Rinnosuke thought. As expected of one of that girl's friends.
Their destination proved to be, somewhat unsurprisingly, a sleigh. It was, as far as Rinnosuke could tell by looking at it, an ordinary sleigh, an object with the purpose of carrying passengers. Instead of traces, however, it had a handle, much like a food cart.
"In you hop!" the girl said, pushing him into a seat before she vaulted over to take hold of the handle.
Rinnosuke was once again seized by a strong sense of foreboding.
"Is this safe?" he asked.
"Don't worry!" the girl said. "This kappa-made, rocket-powered sleigh is equipped with state-of-the art safety features!"
"Kappa-made? Rocket powered!?" Rinnosuke said, starting to rise, before a web of belts shot out of somewhere and lashed him to his seat.
"It has seatbelts, full-body airbags and even an ejector seat!"
"Wait no let me off-"
"And here we GOOOOOOOOO!!!"
Reiuji Utsuho was no stranger to running errands. She was a big, strong girl, even if she was a little shy about it, so when it came to fetching and carrying she was quite literally head and shoulders above the rest.
Today's mission wasn't particularly taxing. She'd been given precise written instructions on the exact species and dimensions of flora she was to gather. Finding it hadn't taken long at all, collecting it couldn't have been easier and wading through snowdrifts was a breeze with the power of nuclear fusion on her side.
All of that said, though, she still couldn't fathom what purpose today's specimen could possibly serve. And so, as she arrived back at the shrine she'd set out from, she resolved to ask.
"Excuse me, Miss Goddess," Utsuho said, raising her hand politely.
"Yes?" The green-haired goddess in question replied.
"Why am I carrying a pine tree?"
It was true. Slung over her shoulder was, in fact, an entire medium-size pine tree, roots and all.
Hina smiled. "That's our Christmas tree!"
"What's a Christmas tree?"
"You'll see! Pop it in the hole Rin dug over there," Hina said, and continued carrying two oddly resigned, ribbon-wrapped goddesses into her shrine.
Utsuho dutifully carried the tree over to the spot where a cat-eared girl with fiery red hair was leaning on a shovel.
"Whew! That's one way to warm up on a cold winter morning!" Kaenbyou Rin said, making a show of wiping her forehead. Unlike Utsuho, Rin was well dressed for the cooler weather. Her usual dark green dress had been joined by tights, mittens, a scarf and earmuffs that covered her humanlike ears.
"If you want to warm up, I could just give you a hug," Utsuho suggested.
"But then I'd doze off and never get any work done!" Rin replied.
With great care not to damage it, as she had been taking ever since uprooting it, Utsuho gently placed the tree in the hole, and held it steady as Rin backfilled the soil around its roots.
"What are we going to do with the tree after this?" Utsuho asked.
"We're gonna decorate it! Cover it in shiny trinkets and lights and put a star at the top!"
"A star? Wouldn't that cause the tree to combust?"
"Not a real star, doofus, a pretend star. Like the black-white or the blue-white throw around all the time."
Rin gave the dirt one last whack with her shovel and they both stood back to admire their work.
"Looks just like it grew there!" Rin decided.
"Orin! Okuu! You have to see this!" Hina's voice called from the front of the shrine.
Rin and Utsuho turned to see Hina dragging a pair of reluctant Aki sisters out of the shrine. Instead of ribbons, the sisters were now clad in dresses, capelets and caps of warm red-and-white fur.
"How do they look?" Hina asked, standing behind the two and putting her arms around them.
Rin said nothing, but grinned and gave the trio a thumbs-up.
"You look like sisters," Utsuho said.
"We are sisters!" Shizuha pointed out.
"Lady Kagiyama too," Utsuho clarified.
Minoriko glanced up at the curse goddess. "Hina's a lot taller than us, though."
"That's 'cause she's the big sister!" Utsuho said, beaming.
"Lady Hina really does have a big-sister feel," Rin agreed.
"In many ways..." Shizuha grumbled. "Gah! Stop squeezing!" She added as Hina hugged the other two goddesses tightly. She broke loose and huffed, rubbing her arms for warmth.
"Are you cold, Lady Aki? Would you like a hug to warm up?" Utsuho asked.
"No! No more hugging! I'll be fine in a minute!"
"Okuu's hugs are nuclear powered! There's nothing warmer!" Rin declared.
"Gyaaaaah stay away from me!" Shizuha shrieked, backing away.
"Come on sis, just go with it," Minoriko said. "It's Christmas."
"Being kidnapped, forced into weird clothes and smothered isn't Christmas! It's harassment!"
"It's Hina, so it's fine."
"What's with that logic!?"
The argument was interrupted by a rude sound like a giant balloon deflating, as a sleigh supported by two huge gouts of flame completed an airborne circuit of the clearing before descending for a bumpy, snow-spraying landing and sliding expertly to a stop just feet away from the goddesses.
"Special delivery for the Kagiyama shrine!" the moosegirl pulling the sleigh announced with a salute.
Mr. Morichika shakily climbed out of his seat, and was able to stagger to a discrete distance before being reacquainted with the sight of his breakfast. Shizuha hovered worriedly over the shopkeeper, while Minoriko just stared at the sleigh and its driver in shock.
"Oh dear... I hope you don't plan on doing that to Miss Komeiji," Hina said with concern.
"Nope. I'm giving her the V.I.P. treatment!" The girl replied with an ominous grin.
The Underground was not particularly in the habit of following the seasons of the surface, and the Palace of the Earth Sprits was built on top of the Former Hell of Blazing Fires besides, so it was with no great concern for keeping warm that Komeiji Satori sat quietly in her study.
For a mind reader the written word carried far more excitement than a face-to-face meeting, and Satori prided herself on her skill as an author. She could not, of course, enjoy the praise of her readers, as few people would knowingly read a book written by such a maligned youkai, but the works of her numerous pseudonyms had garnered a modest amount of popularity.
She was putting the finishing touches to the second draught of her current work-in-progress when there was a quiet knock at the door.
"Enter," Satori called, setting her pen aside.
The door opened to reveal - as Satori already knew - the most recent of her many pets to have attained a humanoid form. A diminutive dove youkai peeked into the room, arms wrapped around a colorful box half as tall as she was.
"A p-p-parcel arrived for you, L-lady Satori," the tiny girl stuttered.
"For me?" Satori asked, rising from her chair. Rarely did anyone see fit to interact with her of their own free will, and she had not made any recent requests that she could remember.
"M-M-Miss Yuugi brought it to the gate. Sh-sh-she said it was f-from 'a f-f-friend'." The birdgirl carefully stepped into the room at Satori's prompting.
Satori took the surprisingly light box and put it on her desk. She gently stroked the girl's snow white hair, and smiled at her appreciative cooing.
"You've been very helpful these last few days," Satori said, "but be sure to take some time off. You can hardly help me if you overexert yourself and wind up in bed now, can you?"
The girl nodded. "I will, L-Lady Satori."
Satori turned her attention to the box. She carefully undid the red ribbon and meticulously unwrapped the green paper around it. Someone put a lot of care and attention into wrapping it, and Satori felt it would be rude of her to just tear it open.
On top of the box she found a letter:
Season's greetings and salutations, fair mistress of the world below! I hope my letter finds you well, and hope furthermore that you find your day of Christmas enjoyable, whether you celebrate it or not. I have enclosed a gift that I hope will at least bring a smile to your face on this occasion, and apologise in advance if I have chosen wrongly.
Yours truly, Uncle Sam.
Most interesting, Satori thought. The letter was handwritten in a beautiful, almost calligraphic script, yet the wording and the signature clearly proved that the author was not a native of Japan. She pondered who may have sent the letter as the white haired girl peered over her arm to read it herself, but couldn't think of anyone that fit.
"Uncle S-S-Sam? I d-d-don't know anyone c-called that..."
"It's probably a pseudonym."
"What's a shoo... sue... sue-done-him, L-Lady Satori?"
"A fake name, like I use for my books."
Satori opened the box. Inside was another box, this one made of metal, with a big red button labeled "PRESS" on the top. That was mildly concerning, but Satori trusted Yuugi would not deliver anything of questionable origin and safety to her door.
Satori carefully tucked away her manuscript, just to be sure.
"Well, no time like the present!"
Satori pressed the big red button.
Disappointingly, nothing happened.
"That was a bit anticlimatic, wasn't it?" Satori said, and turned to her little helper. "Why don't you run along to the kitchen and get them to start preparing morning tea?"
"Yes, L-lady Sato..."
With the eyes in her head, Satori saw the dove's eyes widen and her mouth drop open in shock.
With the eye in her heart, Satori saw, reflected in the dove's mind, a large white hand pop out of the box and seize the back of her own collar.
She then felt herself being yanked over backwards, headfirst into the box.
The dove felt a warm, wet sensation trickle down her legs.
In the grim darkness of the deepest Forest of Magic, where one might think there would be only death lurking in the shadows, there was in fact a house. A little round stone cottage, to be exact, with a quaint thatched roof that didn't quite reach the canopy, adorable round windows fitted with real glass, and a little-used brass bell by the door.
It would be the perfect place for someone who liked to live quietly by themselves, if it wasn't for the loud and companionable ice fairy hammering on the front door.
"Open up, you lazy lump o' lard! I know you're in there!" Cirno bellowed as she pounded away.
At last the door creaked open, to reveal a pyjama-clad and bleary-eyed blonde girl.
"It's nine o'clock in the morning," Rumia groaned.
"High time for you to be up and about, young lady!" Cirno replied, folding her arms disapprovingly.
"I'm nocturnal, and I'm not that much... younger... than you..." Rumia trailed off, staring at something behind Cirno.
She rubbed her eyes and took another look. "Cirno?"
"Yes now?" Cirno answered, her smug grin growing wider.
"Are those... Christmas decorations? Inside your wings?"
"They most certainly are!"
Rumia circled around behind Cirno, staring at her wings in awe. Locked inside the six clear crystals, like flies trapped in amber, was a glittering collection of trees, stars, comets, snowflakes and other assorted baubles, each perfectly crafted in silver, red, green and gold metals. Set into the underside of each wing was a series of metal rings, from which hung dozens of little bells.
"...how did you get them in there?" Rumia asked, once she finally found her voice again.
"That was easy! Melt them, put in the decorations and freeze them again. The hard part was getting them hot enough to melt - I had to get the blacksmith's help with that. She made the bells, too!"
Cirno flapped her wings gently, setting off a cascade of harmonious ringing.
"Wouldn't that hurt, or something?" Rumia asked dubiously.
"Only a little. It's no worse than getting a piercing."
"It looks amazing. What's the occasion?"
"It's Christmas day, you daft daffodil! Now hurry up and get dressed or we're going to miss the party!"
"Yes, and there'll be food aplenty so hop to it!"
Rumia dashed back inside her house and slammed the door.
"Don't you fall asleep again or I'll come in there and help you!" Cirno called after her.
"Eeek! Anything but that! Your hands are freezing!"
Cirno leant back against the doorframe and waited.
It was a day like any other at the Scarlet Devil Mansion, and that was just how its mistress, Lady Remilia Scarlet, liked it. Being a vampire, she preferred to spend most days asleep in her bed - which was most certainly not a coffin; coffins were for dead people and Remilia was positively brimming with life - but seeing as she was the only resident still so inclined, she occasionally deigned to mingle with her more sunlight-tolerant companions.
At this particular moment she was seated at a small round table in a third-floor lounge, whose massive tinted windows afforded her a spectacular view of the frozen Misty Lake, and glimpses of the human settlement beyond, all without exposing her sensitive skin and eyes to the merciless glare of the sun.
A rainbow-coloured projectile burst through the door and tackled Remilia off her chair. Only the timely intervention of the Mansion's perfectly elegant head maid prevented her from being splattered with scalding tea and cracking her head on a plant pot.
"Good morning, Flandre," Remilia said, hiding her exasperation well.
"Good morning sis! Merry Christmas!" Flandre replied, so full of cheer it was a wonder she hadn't exploded yet.
A frown creased Remilia's face. "Merry what now, sister dearest?"
"Christmas! Did you forget what day it was? It's Christmas day!"
"Who told you that?"
"Patchy, of course! Patchy has books on everything! We're gonna get a tree and decorate it and there's gonna be presents and -"
"No," Remilia interrupted, in a tone that would have left few people the courage to argue.
"...huh?" Flandre said, her flurry of words grinding to a halt.
"I said, no," Remilia repeated.
"But... why? It's Christmas!"
Remilia wormed her way out from under Flandre and drew herself up to her full, unimposing height.
"Because we, my dear Flandre, are vampires. Creatures of the night, cruel demons in human guise stalking the Earth! And vampires," Remilia pointed at Flandre, "care not for petty human traditions like Christmas!"
"But you're not cruel," Flandre pointed out. "You even give the fairy maids time off."
"Fairies are delicate things. I can't work them too hard or I'll run out of maids."
"Then why not get stronger maids? Humans, like Sakuya?"
"They won't come within a mile of the Mansion, and with good reason."
"Then why don't you just make them?"
"Because then that thrice-damned Hakurei will storm in here and throw as all in irons!" Remilia protested. "It's a necessity, I tell you, a necessity!"
"Well, so is Christmas!" Flandre declared.
"There will be no Christmas in my house!" Remilia roared.
Silence fell. Flandre stared at the floor.
"Oh dear. I take it this means the Christmas pudding is cancelled?" the silver-haired head maid, Izayoi Sakuya, asked.
Remilia twitched. "Do you think me a child, to be swayed by the promise of food?"
"Not at all, my Mistress. Merely considering how best to break the sad news to the rest of the maids. They were looking forward to it so..."
"If you think you're going to guilt trip me into changing my mind, you're sorely mistaken," Remilia asserted, folding her arms. "Is there anything else you had planned that I ought to know about?"
"Only the ice skates I ordered as gifts for yourself and the other residents."
"Ice skates? Good heavens, girl! I won't have you spending my money on such trivialities!"
Sakuya bowed again, lower than before. "I did nothing of the sort, Mistress. It took most of my salary for a year, but I paid all expenses from my own purse."
Remilia narrowed her eyes at the maid. "Are you implying I don't pay you enough?"
"I wouldn't dream of it, my Mistress. Ice skates are a rarity in this land. Only one smithy in Gensoukyou was able to meet the order for the blades, and her work does not come cheap."
"Let this be a lesson in managing you personal finances responsibly, then."
Sakuya bowed yet again. "As you say, Mistress. Will that be all?"
"No, that will most certainly not be all! Where are you in such a hurry to be off to?"
"I must warn Meiling before she brings the tree in. She will be most disappointed; she's been cultivating the perfect Christmas tree all year."
"Sakuya, I think it's high time you and I had a little chat about what does and does not happen in my household."
"I would be most grateful, Mistress. After all, it was your instruction that any reasonable request from the Young Mistress was to be granted."
"...I did say that, didn't I? Well, Christmas is not a 'reasonable request', not by any stretch of the imagination!"
Sakuya bowed. "As you wish, my Mistress."
"But... but..." Flandre pleaded, her wings drooping dejectedly.
"No, Flan, not the puppy dog eyes; they're not going to work this time."
"But I even got you a present! It'll have to wait until your birthday now..."
Remilia froze, mentally weighing her dignity as a creature of the night against receiving a gift from her beloved sister. Granted, it would probably blow her head off again, but they grew back, and scaring Madame Kirisame into soiling her bloomers had been most satisfying.
Remilia sighed. "Very well."
"Yes!" Flandre hissed, throwing her fists into the air.
The head maid's position shifted imperceptably as she stepped out of time to hide her own reaction.
"But!" Remilia added, holding aloft one sharp yet elegant finger. "If the Queen of the Night is to celebrate Christmas, then let us have a celebration to be remembered through the ages!" she declared, wings flaring dramatically.
"Yaaaaaay!" Flandre cheered.
"Shall I invite the historian from the village then, Mistress?" Sakuya inquired.
Remilia waved dismissively. "An excellent idea, Sakuya, but I think our own purple-haired, bookloving shut-in could use a chance to loosen up instead." She turned on her heel and started out of the room. "You may begin your preparations. I will start on the guest list."
Remilia stalked through the halls of her domain, mindful to keep a close eye on her surroundings. It wouldn't do for her to get lost in her own house, after all, and with the head maid's penchant for changing the layout on a daily basis - which Remilia encouraged, mind - it was perfectly possible.
Sakuya was the only one truly able to navigate the Mansion with certainty. Remilia's pride had prevented her from asking directly, but after the first decade or so she had worked out the maid's system: every artfully placed ornament, every painting, every suit of armour, even every last one of the Mansion's miles of scarlet carpet, was unique in some way.
They were not always in the same place, however, or even restricted to one place at a time. Such was the whim of a woman with absolute control over space and time. They were, however, always near the same place. For example, the suit of armour directly in front of Remilia, in all its axe-wielding glory, was always by the kitchen. Head to the armour's right, and she would, without fail, find stovetops and pantries soon after.
The fact that she was on the third floor and the kitchen was on the ground floor was entirely beside the point.
Remilia wasn't headed for the kitchen, though, so she turned right, waiting for the particular sequence of vase, door, lampstand and darkened hall that lead to the Library. Sure enough, after following the required route, she found herself in front of the enormous double doors that marked the Library's main entrance.
Which was in the basement, and she hadn't descended any stairs, but again, that was beside the point.
Remilia threw open the doors with a casual flick of her superhuman strength. "Look lively, Patchy! I'm coming in!"
"You're just in time, Remi," Patchouli Knowledge's voice said from mere feet away. "I was just leaving."
Remilia started slightly. "Leaving? Where are you going?"
"Out," Patchouli replied simply.
Remilia raised an eyebrow. "The idea of a good joke is that it's supposed to be believable, Patchy."
"It's not as unbelievable as you imply. I do go out from time to time, you know."
"Not in the middle of winter you don't."
"Touché. What was it you wanted me for?"
Remilia smirked and cleared her throat. "Why, I'm here to invite you to a party. A Christmas party, as it happens. Or did you forget what day it was, cooped up in your library?"
Both of Patchouli's eyebrows went up a fraction, which was the most facial expression she'd had so far. "Now which one of us is making unbelievable jokes, I wonder? You hate Christmas."
"As a wise friend of mine once said, times change, and we must change with them, or risk being swept away by the tide," Remilia quoted smugly.
Patchouli paused in thought for a moment. "...that was me, wasn't it? Just before we moved the house to Gensoukyou. This was not the context I had in mind at the time."
Remilia waved her hand airily. "You know what they say about wisdom; it comes from the ears and not the mouth. But enough talk! What is a party without guests?"
"Dull," Patchouli replied, shaking the puffiness back into her hat.
"Exactly! So let's go, we have a tree to decorate!"
"I hate to be a disappointment, but I have prior engangements."
Patchouli's familiar and assistant librarian, Koakuma, swooped down the nearest aisle of bookshelves and fluttered to a stop in front of her master. She passed some of the boxes she was carrying to Patchouli.
"With whom? The puppeteer from the forest? Why not invite her here instead - the more the merrier!"
"I'm afraid my appointment is elsewhere today."
Remilia stared at her friend in confusion. "...who, then? Just where are you going?"
Patchouli turned to look at Remilia as she walked past her. "To a Christmas party."
Remilia stood and stared as the doors swung shut behind the departing bookworms.
The corners of her mouth twitched. She smiled, and chuckled.
Maybe she would invite the village historian after all.
The forest around the Kagiyama shrine was so dense that, in the summer, not a single ray of sunshine touched the ground. Right now, however, the gloom was replaced with the dazzling white of snow piled up around the skeletal trunks of defoliated trees.
The paths to and from the shrine were rarely trod, yet even now some industrious individual had taken the time to clear away the snow so completely that even a human from the Village could reach it without fear of getting lost.
A few scorch marks at the base of some of the trees hinted at the manner in which this had been accomplished.
Two youkai were currently strolling along the path, avoiding the harsh chill of flying through the cold wind. Their red and blue outfits stood out starkly against the snow.
"Give me back my head," Sekibanki complained, her voice coming from a point near Kogasa's chest.
"I'm warming it up for you!" Kogasa cheerfully replied. "You said it was cold, right?"
"I can do that myself! Just give it back!" Sekibanki replied, making a grab for her missing body part.
Kogasa sidestepped with a giggle. "But you won't! You'll just stick it back on your shoulders and start complaining again!"
"Because that's where heads are supposed to be!" Sekibanki whined.
"Why don't we swap?" Kogasa's umbrella shifted from being held against her shoulder by an invisible hand to hovering beside Sekibanki. "You can carry my umbrella instead!"
"Like I'd want to carry that thing! It doesn't go with my color scheme!"
"I think it goes well with our color scheme. Red and blue makes purple, right?"
Sekibanki's face was suddenly well on its way to becoming the same color as her hair. "D-d-d-don't say unnecessary things! Stupid!"
She clutched Kogasa's umbrella tightly anyway.
"If you ever get around to having kids, can you name one of them after me?" the singsong voice of Medicine Melancholy asked from behind the pair.
"Gyaaaaaaaaaah!" Sekibanki eloquently replied.
Kogasa turned to see the doll youkai coming up behind them on the same path. Her companion, a three-winged ibis youkai by the name of Tokiko, was studiously pretending she wasn't listening.
"Hmmm," Kogasa said, "Medicine is a nice name, but it's a little unusual. I wouldn't want her to be teased about it."
"How about Madison?" Medicine suggested. "That's a normal name."
"Is it? I don't know much about Western names..."
"Why are we even talking about this!?" Sekibanki wailed. "I'm telling you we're not like that, and besides we're both girls!"
"Nothing Doctor Yagokoro couldn't fix, I'm sure," Medicine said, clapping the two taller youkai on the back. "Why are you carrying her head, anyway?"
"I'm keeping it warm!" Kogasa replied.
"That sounds like an excellent idea," Medicine said, and grabbed hold of her own head.
"NO!!!" a trio of voices chorused.
"Aww," Medicine said, not even pretending to look upset, "you three are such wimps. What happened to all the fearsome man-eating youkai?"
"I'm a tsukumogami! I don't eat people!" Kogasa protested.
"Me neither!" Tokiko said.
"I'm on a diet!" Sekibanki added.
Medicine let out a mock sigh. "There's no hope for any of us, is there?"
The four youkai emerged from the tunnel of trees into the clearing that housed the Kagiyama shrine. The colorful decorations weren't the only new addition, though; a giant metal disc lay wedged in the snow next to the shrine. The group paused to stare at it in confusion.
"What is that?" Tokiko asked nobody in particular.
"...modern art?" Sekibanki suggested.
"Come on Nitori, you can fix it later!" a figure next to the disc called. Her asymmetrical red-and-blue wings identified her as Houjuu Nue.
A muffled yell came from inside the disc.
"Gaaah! Just forget about it, okay!? Get out here and party!" Nue called, before leaping on top of the disc and disappearing inside.
Kogasa caught sight of someone at the shrine and waved. "Heeeeey! Hina!"
Hina waved back. "Hello Kogasa! Hello Medi!"
The four newcomers hurried over to the party grounds.
"We brought poison," Medicine said, presenting Hina with a bag. Inside were two bottles of wine.
"Thank you!" Hina replied, accepting the bag with a small bow.
"We, uh, didn't bring anything. Sorry," Kogasa apologised, finally letting go of Sekibanki's head.
"Don't be silly," Hina said, ruffling Kogasa's hair. "The two of you donated half the decorations and food, after all! I should be thanking you!"
Kogasa squirmed and looked at the ground. Sekibanki ducked out of hair-ruffling range.
"Come on Miss Kawashiro, don't be such a party pooper!" Kochiya Sanae said as she helped Nue drag a pouting blue-haired kappa back to the shrine.
"But the party lights!" Nitori protested, "I went to a lot of trouble to install a complete ventral lighting system and I can't use it if the gravitational refraction engine isn't -"
"Don't worry about it, Nitori. Everyone else here has probably never even heard of party lights," Nue said.
"I have!" a new voice, that of Usami Sumireko, chimed in.
"Oh my, some humans came? You must be brave," Medicine said.
"That or stupid," Fujiwara no Mokou agreed.
"I'm not stupid!" Sumireko protested.
"I wasn't talking about you," Mokou replied.
"I brought party lights!" a fairy with decidely unique dress sense chimed in.
It took the combined strength of Kogasa, Sekibanki and Medicine to stop Clownpiece from pressing a large red button labelled "PARTY".
"It seems to have become quite lively already. I hope I'm not late?" Patchouli asked as she and Koakuma touched down.
"Not at all! Welcome!" Hina said. "I was worried you wouldn't be able to make it."
"We were delayed somewhat due to underestimating the duration of our preparations," Patchouli replied, and offered one of the boxes she was carrying to the curse goddess.
Hina fiddled with the box to open it, and looked inside. "...chocolates?"
"Our humble donation to the Kagiyama shrine," Patchouli said. "We also prepared an assortment of gingerbread and biscuits." She motioned toward the other boxes she and Koakuma were carrying. "The recipes proved to be somewhat more finicky than I remembered, so this is all we were able to produce in the time available."
"You made these?" Hina asked. "You didn't just ask your wonderful maid to do it for you?"
"That's our Patchy!" Cirno cheered.
Hina smiled warmly. "Thank you very much, Miss Knowledge."
"It was nothing, Lady Kagiyama." Patchouli and her familiar moved toward the tables, taking seats near Cirno and Rumia.
Death by disco averted, Kogasa took a moment to look around the party. Clownpiece had returned to the snowball fight between Orin and Okuu, and Medicine was talking to Hina about something as she headed for the shrine. Tokiko had approached Satori, who seemed surprised and awkward at the company.
"So," Sekibanki said from beside her. "We gonna join in any time soon?"
Kogasa turned to answer, but at that moment the Aki sisters emerged from the shrine.
"Okay everyone, grub's up!" Minoriko declared as she and her sister brought out the main course.
"And so's the booze!"
The towering figure of Yasaka Kanako strode into view behind them, carrying no less than six huge mugs of beer. She was wearing a revealing Western dress and had tied her unnaturally purple hair up in a tight bun.
A cheer went up from the alcohol-loving youkai, and the mugs were distributed in short order.
Utsuho, meanwhile, was staring at Kanako in awe. "That dress is awesome," she observed.
Kanako looked surprised. "You like it? It's called a dirndl, I believe. It was a gift from the forest puppeteer."
"It's way too cold to be wearing something like that," Rin complained, exaggerating a shiver.
"A little cool weather is nothing to a goddess!" Kanako declared, putting her hands on her hips.
"Well we're still cold," Shizuha grumbled.
"I'm with Shizu, you're gonna catch your death," Moriya Suwako agreed, seemingly popping out of nowhere. "Sanae's armpits were bad enough..."
"I don't care about that! I want one too!" Utsuho begged, eyes gleaming.
Kanako frowned slightly. "Well, Miss Margatroid does take commisions from time to time, so I suppose it couldn't hurt to ask..."
"Can we?" Utsuho asked, whirling to face Satori so fast Kanako had to dodge her massive wings. "Can we ask her, Lady Satori?"
"It's not out of the question," Satori began, "but I think it would be better if we-"
"Hooray!" Utsuho cheered. Satori sighed, but smiled.
"Is it really okay to eat so much so early in the day?" Sumireko asked, eyeing a platter of roast lamb as if it was going to sprout tentacles and start choking her.
"Half the guests are youkai so their schedules are messed up anyway," Mokou replied.
"You humans have grown too used to eating by the clock," Medicine intoned, "rather than taking every meal as it comes, not knowing if it may be your last."
"Now now Medi, that's enough teasing," Hina said gently. "I think we can all manage to play nice for one day."
Medicine just smiled innocently.
Hina raised her voice. "Before we get started, I'd like to say a few words. Could I have your attention please?"
"Thank you all for coming, willingly or not - and I do apologize for not," Hina added as Parsee shot her a look that could melt steel, " - plus an extra special thank you to everyone who brought food or helped out, even if it didn't quite go to plan."
Nitori sagged miserably, which Sanae remedied by pulling her into a bear hug.
"A lot of you here have had the misfortune of being isolated or ostracised," Hina continued, "through no fault of your own or for reasons outside of your control, and I wanted all of you to have the chance to spend some time with people who don't care about silly little things like that, even if it wasn't something you you'd normally do. This is my Christmas gift to you. I hope you all appreciate it, even if you may find my methods objectionable."
Hina paused to make eye contact with each of the guests in turn. The Aki sisters just rolled their eyes. Satori scowled and glared at Clownpiece, who stuck her tongue out in response. Parsee huffed and looked away... right into the face of Rinnosuke, whom she'd been sitting next to for quite some time. She quickly opted to stare at the table instead, ears turning pink, while Rinnosuke let out a tired sigh.
"Okay then!" Hina said with a smile. "Enough of me waffling on, let's eat! Merry Christmas!"
It's late, it's lousy and it's missing a big chunk out of the middle, but it's been gathering dust on my HDD for two months now so screw it, here it is, warts and all. Sorry for the wait, sorry for the mess, and Merry Christmas.