Scobie Manor was filled with the electrical sound of "The Christmas Tree Rock."
"It does get old kinda fast," Willow said, carefully adding flour to the dough.
"You sure?" Dawn asked moving along with the song as she separated out the egg yolks.
Her red-haired friend gave her a look and Dawn went out into the living room and switched off the tree, which stopped in mid-motion.
"Ah. Silence at last."
Dawn came back into the kitchen, but before she could pick up her work, they heard a bump and a muttered curse from the living room. The two girls rushed to find Xander carrying boxes upon boxes, trying to approach the table without further mishaps. They each took some of the boxes from him.
"Ooooh, early prezzies?" Dawn sounded quite giddy. She put her boxes on the table next to the ones Willow had taken from Xander.
"Decorations for the tree," Xander answered and put the rest of the boxes down, collapsing dramatically on the couch.
"All of this?" Willow asked with big eyes. "What's with the empty closets and 'everything new has to be bought'? I don't remember buying decorations."
"Yeah, and I think we'd have remembered if we just so happened to buy half a ton. Has Buffy been secretly shopping without us?"
"They are all from different places," Xander explained. "These here are from the Coven," he said pointing at three boxes at the end of the table. There were symbols made from straw, woven herbs, scented candles and crystals that seemed to glow from within. "Lyle and Daisy gave her some, too. This box is from Fred and Alice. They said they had too many anyway. And this little elf is from Monica." He lifted a little figure out of one of the boxes. She had long blonde hair and a small and sexy green outfit over a body with over-proportional breasts, a tiny waist and long legs. "She said if we needed anything else, we could come over any time."
"I'll bet she did," Willow said with a knowing grin towards Dawn.
"Hey, I can't help my natural charm and irresistible manliness."
"Yeah, sure, Xander. But what are we going to do with all this? I'm not sure a tree big enough for it all will even fit in here. It's enough for a dozen Timmy's," Dawn said looking at the full table.
"Hey. What's up with him anyway? Why isn't he rocking away?"
"He needs to rest his vocal chords," Willow answered before Dawn could say anything.
"So what about the decorations? Should we pre-sort, decide for one kind, take a little from all, decapitate the elf?" Dawn said, lifting the offending object by its head.
"You're just jealous that you're not the only one with a wasp-waist now." Dawn blushed slightly but Xander didn't notice as he eyed the spot where the tree was to be placed. "I guess we should wait for Buffy and Giles so we can all decide together."
"Oh yes, she'll love that. She really wants to make this the bestest Christmas ever," Willow said fondly.
"We were kinda grinchy to her, weren't we?" Dawn asked looking guiltily at the others.
"It's called teasing and it's what friends do, but yeah, we should stop, when she comes back. Except that I'll smuggle Timmy in the kitchen closet, turn him on and lock the door while she prepares dinner."
Dawn threw the elf at Xander.
"What?" he asked innocently.
"We should really thank Buffy for what she's done," Willow interjected. "She's gonna make a Christmas dinner with parts from our own traditional family dinners. A brand new Summers-Giles-Harris-Rosenberg family tradition."
"So that's what SuGiHaRo means!" Xander said sitting up on the couch. "I've been wondering why we'd have Chinese. It's not exactly traditional."
"Good idea on the thanking, Willow. I mean, yeah, she's going a little overboard with her perfectionism..."
"A little?" Xander interrupted Dawn. "Have you seen the plan she's made? It's an actual timetable. Color-coded."
"Really?" Willow piped up happily.
"Yes, and it's still a freaky thing to do." Willow pouted, but Xander ignored her. "I think the Thanksgiving mishaps pushed Buffy from endearingly meticulous to scarily obsessed. However, " he added stopping Dawn who was about to protest, "I know that she means the best and also that fast food with Timmy might not be how I want to remember our first Christmas here together, so I'll be very enthusiastic and helpful, when they come back." The girls looked at him doubtfully. "And if I'm not, I'll fake it."
"Good plan," Willow said with a nod.
When they arrived at Crystal Park, the weather had gotten even worse. Buffy looked quite dismayed as she pulled the cap of her coat over her head. The grass around her boots sloshed noisily as she looked across the tree lot where the parts near the lake were already a bit under water. She turned to Giles to see if he was worried too, but instead of creases on his forehead, she found him grinning.
She turned around to see what he was laughing at, but all she saw was the lot owner talking quite animatedly to a couple. The ground beneath her was getting muddier by the second and she lifted her boots with little plops to face Giles again.
He laughed out loud.
"So that's what so funny!? You're laughing at me?" she asked with a glare.
"No, of course not," he said sobering up. "It just strikes me as funny that someone who wears high heels for slaying because it fits the outfit, would wear a rain coat that will never go out of fashion only because it was never fashionable to begin with."
"What was I supposed to do? Lyle gave it to me. I couldn't really have gone 'Oh, thanks Boss, but I'd rather drown to death again before being caught in this'. Besides it is practical. You could throw me into Crystal Lake in this thing and I wouldn't get wet."
A wicked half-smile formed on Giles' face.
"Yeah right. Try it and we'll see who ends up 'Under the Sea', Ariel."
Giles smiled again and they started towards the lot owner, Giles two steps behind Buffy, who had to stop and pull her boots out of the mud every couple of steps. He suppressed his chuckle, but couldn't mask his grin.
The lot owner, a middle-aged, round-faced man with graying hair and a rather ugly brown checked cap, was still talking to the potential customers. Evidently the young couple found the weather too bad and preferred having no tree at all to walking over to the trees, where the ground was rapidly going from very muddy to being completely submerged.
"I think we still have a plastic tree somewhere," the young woman said to her partner.
"Plastic tree?! But Christmas isn't Christmas without a rea* tree. Listen, you don't have to walk over there. I can get you one, a really nice one. There's one wonderful Douglas fir that you'll love. Six feet tall, perfect pyramid shape. It's our state tree!"
"Oh, is it? We're not from here," the young man said. The tree owner mumbled something that sounded like "Oh, really", but the young man continued without noticing. "I really think we better get home. Thanks for your efforts."
The couple hurried away and the lot owner glared after them. "Non-Oregonians. Why don't you just stay where you came from?" Then he noticed Buffy and Giles. "Oh, hello. We have wonderful trees in all sizes. Scotch Pine, Noble, Balsam and of course the Douglas fir. Do you have anything special in mind?"
"Oh no, I'd like to take a look and decide," Buffy said cheerily.
The lot owner nodded approvingly and led the way. "That couple just now... they thought the weather was too bad, so now they'll take an artificial tree. 'Artificial tree'. Now that's what I call an oxymoron. If it's artificial it's not really a tree, is it? And I've seen worse weather in December. A bit of rain never killed anyone." Buffy nodded and the man spoke in a lower voice. "You can guess that they're not from here. I see this again and again. It starts raining and you know right away who's a local. If they can't stop complaining about the weather, they moved here."
She and the lot owner turned around at Giles' voice. He had fallen back quite a bit and his shoes had now sunk into the mud a good inch. "Just a moment," she said.
"He's not from here either, is he?" the man asked with a nod towards Giles. She just smiled and went towards her dripping Watcher.
"I bet you wish you were wearing my outfit now, huh?"
He sighed. "All right. I admit that it is more practical. I'll have to pay the price for not being fashion- impaired. I'll wait here if it's all right with you."
A pout threatened to form on her mouth, but then she looked at his shoes and his wet hair and relented. "'Kay. You go back to the car. No need for you to get sick, although I kinda could have predicted it."
He rolled his eyes. "But be careful, the water seems to be rising an inch a minute."
"I will. And you can keep an eye on me from the dryness of the car. Should be easy. You know, you being a Watcher and all."
She smiled at him and he smiled back before turning around and walking to the SUV with a shaking head.
"So what's with the funky blessing?"
"It's just a nice little ritual. We can do it tomorrow before we go to the Coven. Buffy's already resigned that it's gonna be the tiresome weird relations part of the holiday, which would not be entirely wrong. I don't think I've ever seen Lessa so hyper."
"And that's saying something," Dawn said gravely.
"Oh, yeah," Xander added. "It'll be fun though. Lots of cakes, playing 'will she or will she not smile'. Hey, maybe Elspeth has one of her 'Whoa, I can't believe that old lady knows things like this' stories." He stared dreamily at the wall for a second. "Did I mention the lovely cake?"
"Yes," Willow and Dawn answered as one.
"I just hope Buffy will get along with Jo," Willow said, putting some glue on a piece of cardboard that was supposed to become a Christmas card.
"Not exactly future best friends forever vibes, huh?"
"Only if you always hate your best friends at first. And Jo's really trying to be nice to her," Dawn said.
"What do you guys think of Jo and the Watcher in love thing?" Xander asked the girls.
"I like her a lot. She's helpful and nice, intelligent and Giles seems happy. What's not to like?" Willow said without looking up from her task to make the cardboard star stick to the paper.
"Yeah, I guess," Dawn said.
"You guess?" Xander prompted for further information.
"She's pretty cool for a person her age and not evil or anything. If Giles is happy with her, I'm okay."
"But?" he prompted again.
"Nothing, just that I wished Buffy would like her. She's not downright aggressive anymore, but I still feel like I'm on a mine-field when they are in a room together. I prefer Jo when she's not here or at least when Buffy is not also here."
"That'll be kinda difficult when Jo moves in," Willow said, still not looking up from her Christmas artwork.
"Whoa, it's a bit early for that, isn't it?"
Now Willow did look up. "Not everyone's as commitment shy as you." Xander's face darkened and Willow realized her mistake. "I'm sorry, Xander, I didn't..."
"It's okay. Forget it."
There was a heavy silence. After a while Dawn spoke.
"I've been thinking about the last Christmas that Mom was alive."
Willow and Xander both looked at her, but Xander quickly looked away again. Willow on the other hand smiled.
"Tara enjoyed that a lot. She said it was the best Christmas she ever had." There were tears in her eyes, but she kept smiling, looking at a far away place.
Dawn rubbed her back gently and looked at Xander, whose face was still determinedly downcast. "We've lost too many people."
Xander stood up without looking at them. He hesitated for a second then said, "Willow, I think the cookies are ready."
Willow jumped up and after an apologetic look at Xander, went into the kitchen.
"I think I'll get a bit of fresh air on the porch," Xander said and left Dawn alone in the living room.
Rain was hitting the car in constant drum roll. It hadn't lessened a bit and Buffy was still walking among the trees. The water had reached the trees by now and he saw the lot owner trying to move them away from the lake, but not really succeeding. Nobody else had shown up to buy a tree and Giles had a feeling that they would be his last sale of the season.
With a last regretful look at the dry warmth of the car he stepped outside to see how close Buffy was to making a choice and to help her if necessary. When he sunk into the ground, he realized that it was worse than he thought. Water began to seep into his shoes. He muttered a curse, but went on making sure that his shoes didn't get stuck in the mud.
"Buffy!" he called out to her. She turned around to him and waved happily. He shook his head and quietly said, "And that from a Californian called Summers. Must be the Christmas spirit." He took a couple of more steps before shouting again. "Have you found one?"
"I'm not sure. This one is absolutely perfect, but I think it's a bit too tall for our living room," Buffy shouted back over the rain.
"It doesn't matter. We can trim it, if necessary," Giles called out.
The lot owner turned around sharply and gave Giles a glare. But then looking up at the pouring rain, he decided to focus on Buffy and the sale at hand. "So, you want this one?"
"Yes, this one it is. The perfect tree." She smiled brightly and the man's frown turned into a defeated smile that suggested he might actually forgive her if she trimmed the tree.
"All right. I'll carry it over to the car for you."
"That's all right. I'll manage. How much do we owe you?"
He smiled. "Now I know that young ladies these day..." Buffy lifted the tree quite easily, hindered only by the shortness of her arms.
"He has the money," she told the dumbfounded man with a nod towards Giles. It took a few seconds before he followed her.
Giles gave Buffy an approving smile. "It is very beautiful. And I'm sure we can make it fit somehow." She gave him a dazzling smile and his eyes followed her as she carried the fir to the car.
The man had hurried after Buffy and heard enough to smile proudly. "Thirty dollars for the beauty."
"I beg your pardon!" Giles said looking sharply at the man who took a step back.
"It's a Douglas fir, over 7 feet, grown right here in Oregon. She took it from my special section," the man said still raising his chin, but not coming closer.
Giles' confusion finally gave away to understanding. "Oh, the tree... yes, thirty dollars." Giles rummaged through his wallet and paused, suddenly absorbing the suggested cost of the 'beauty'. "Thirty dollars! That's robbery."
"Giles," Buffy said warningly as she began tying up the tree to the roof.
He sighed and continued to file though his wallet. After going through the notes, he fished out twenty dollars and handed them to the man. "Here's twenty. Wait a moment."
"Take your time," the man said, taking a nervous look towards his trees. "I'll have to move them again. Be right back."
Giles rolled his eyes and went to ask Buffy for the remaining ten dollars.
Dawn went out to the small porch to find Xander sitting in a chair and staring out into the rain. She had her raincoat in her hands but didn't put it on. Instead she sat down on a chair next to him.
Xander's face moved a bit in her direction then back again. It was the only sign that he had noticed her at all.
Dawn looked at the rain for a while before speaking. "I wonder where Dad's spending Christmas."
Xander looked at her surprised.
"I know," she said shrugging. "He's a bastard and an idiot, but he's still my father unfortunately. And even if I keep telling myself that I don't need him, which I really totally don't... I do miss him sometimes."
Xander looked back at the rain and then said, "My parents spent every Christmas drinking and fighting."
"Guess we're all not exactly blessed with perfect parents."
"Willow got a nice little Hanukkah card."
"Yeah, but I don't see her nominating them for parents of the year any time soon. She complained that she had to go to your house to see you do the Snoopy dance."
"Oh yeah, the Xander Christmas special," he said with a smile.
"Will you do it for me?"
He looked over at her. "Tomorrow perhaps. I doubt Buffy would consider it fit for her 'Perfect Weird-Chinese-Short- for-our-names' Christmas."
"How did she come up with that?"
"Spending days thinking about how to make this wonderful for the people she loves," Dawn said sincerely.
Xander nodded, then reached over and took Dawn's hand. "Thanks."
They both turned towards the rain again, still holding hands between the chairs.
A hand carefully added some sand-colored powder to a liquid-filled bowl.
"Water in circle.
Above and beneath.
What comes from the heavens,
Should be greeted by earth!"
Ethan watched with glee as the powder in the bowl suddenly started coalescing, forming into a ball. It grew bigger and bigger while the liquid disappeared, sucked into the powder. This continued until there was no water left and in the middle of the bowl lay only a muddy ball. Then the ball suddenly jumped out of the bowl, rolled across the floor, squeezed beneath the door and was gone.
The ball fell from the sidewalk onto the wet street, rolling with the rising waters. The minute the ball hit the water-filled gutters, the current took over, carrying it down into the sewers where the torrential rains had created rapid-like channels beneath the town.
The ball grew larger and larger as it rolled through the tunnels, feeding on the muddy water pouring in from above. When it bounced into a ladder where a faint light signaled at least one still-clear drain and a manhole cover, it stopped and stretched along the ladder. With a deep metal grinding sound, the cover was pushed up and aside. Light and new water poured through the hole and the mud formed into the shape of a hand.
The lot owner tried to keep the trees above water, moving them from the pool-like lower land toward the area near the drains. He saw a drier spot behind the sewer entry and lifted one of the heavier trees. Looking towards the lot entry where the man and young woman waited, he spoke impatiently under his breath, "I'm coming, I'm coming."
The man didn't notice the muddy hand reaching up from the sewers. It grabbed him by his feet and with only a gasp and a splashy thud from the fall of the tree, the man disappeared into the hole.