Xander continued to stare into the rain, but his face was less haunted then before. "We should go inside before we catch a cold," he said and then waited for Dawn to either get up or tell him that she preferred to stay. Instead she was silent. He turned around to find Dawn sitting in the chair, her head leaning to one side, her eyes closed.
"Dawn?" he squeezed the hand that he was still holding and the girl awoke.
"What the...? Where...? Oh yeah, we're outside." She gave him a smile, but he didn't answer in kind.
Instead, Xander let go of her hand and put his to her forehead. "Are you sick? You don't feel warm." His face clouded a bit. "You been having more headaches?"
"No," Dawn said, and then with a grimace, her hand flew up to press against her temple.
"Then what?" Xander asked, worry etched on his face.
"I don't know. Guess, I was just a little out of it for a second." She sat up in the chair again. "Probably all Buffy's fault for taking my plate away before I was done."
"Want me to tell her that?"
"No," Dawn said. "It's Christmas and she'll just try to stick me in bed or drag me to a doctor. I'm fine. Really."
He gave her a long, hard look, and then nodded. "Fine. Not today. But don't think I'm any less worried than she is. People don't just faint without a reason. I'll be watching how much you eat from now on." Dawn nodded in defeat. "We should go back inside though. There'll be hell to pay if Buffy catches us outside without our coats," he added with a smile.
"I have a coat." She lifted it up from her lap with a grin. "Besides I could do with a short walk and some fresh air."
"Okay, but not far and you zip your coat up."
"All right, Daddy."
Xander screwed up his face and Dawn began laughing.
"Keep it up and you'll be spending today and every holiday until you're forty in your room. Besides, I'm in no way, shape, or form old enough to be your father. And I'm not getting in the middle of your and Buffy's fights. If that's not the ultimate act of non-parenting, I don't know what is."
Dawn had her coat on by the time he finished rambling. "Xander, I get it. I was kidding."
"But I bet Monica would want you to be the father of her brats." She laughed and ran along the walkway out onto the sidewalk. She stopped to see if he had followed, when two hands grabbed her by the waist. She squealed and turned around.
"Monica is just a friendly neighbor," Xander pointed out.
"I know, I'm just saying she wouldn't mind you being more. Xander, it's raining."
He looked up in the air and feigned shock. "Oh my God. You're right, whatever will we do?"
"You're gonna catch a cold."
"We said just a quick walk. I'm gonna take a shower anyway." Then he added seriously, "and I'm not letting you walk around alone with what just happened." She opened her mouth, but then just exhaled instead of protesting. Xander's face turned into a grin. "But thanks anyway, Mommy."
She slapped him on the arm and then slipped her hand around it as they began walking.
At the tree lot, Buffy came back from checking the fastening of the tree for the third time.
"Where is he? I could call Brad and tell him I can't make it, if I have to, but I need to start with dinner in time. Besides we've been waiting forever. This would never happen at Pershing Daisies."
Giles couldn't help a smile. "He's over there. He just carried a few trees away. I don't believe there will be any more customers anyway in this weather."
"Why Giles, did I just hear the British Guy complaining about rain?" Buffy asked with a glint in her eyes.
"I was not complaining," Giles explained patiently. "I was making an observation."
"Like your observations about Dawn's music?"
"No. Those are heartfelt and, if I may add, completely justified complaints."
"She's a teenager, Giles. And my God, when did I start sounding like a grown-up?"
"You are a grown-up," he said quietly.
They exchanged a look and for moment nobody uttered a word.
"I know," Buffy finally said softly. "It's not always fun." Then she piped up, "Making her clean up her room is, though."
Giles looked over to where he had last seen the man. "I can't see him anymore."
"I say, if he doesn't want the rest of his money, that's his own fault."
He glared at her. She sighed and they started walking towards the trees.
"Hmm. That's weird. He's not here," Buffy said as they had arrived near the trees.
"His car is still here, so are the trees. Where would he run off to without getting the rest of his money first?"
"Cuppa hot mocha?"
"There's a hole to the sewers here," he said pointing it out to Buffy. "Maybe he opened the cover to increase the drainage and then slipped and fell in."
They leaned over the hole to look inside. Then Buffy looked up at him with an unhappy face.
"Please tell me we're not going into the sewers on Christmas."
"Not before getting a flashlight. There should be one in the car."
Buffy sighed, but fetched the flashlight as fast as she could on the soggy ground.
"Ah, you found it," Giles said when she returned. "The ladder is a bit dirty, but I..." He stopped, when Buffy fearlessly jumped down. He looked in after her. "Are you all right?"
"Splashing," came the answer from below. "The water is pretty high and fast, but I don't think it could have carried him away." She walked around, feeling for a possible body beneath the surface. "He's not here," she called up. "So what are we gonna do now?" She turned around while she waited for Giles' answer pointing the flashlight as she moved. Then she saw something at the end of the tunnel where it split into two. "Hey, I think I found something."
Above Giles asked, "What?" The only answer was someone splashing through the water. "Buffy?" Still no answer. "Just wonderful", he muttered as he proceeded to carefully follow her down into the sewers.
Willow was busy decorating the cookies when the doorbell rang. She took a look at her watch. "So late already! The kitchen looks like hell." She opened the door beginning, "Don't worry I'll clean up while you're... Mr. Thomason?"
"Miss Rosenberg. Here's your mail," he said in a friendly tone but without a real smile. He gave her a few letters and two large envelopes. "I wanted to wish you the best for the season and to thank you again for your card and nice words."
"You're welcome. I really am sorry. It must be so hard for you."
"It is. But I guess you know what it's like to lose everything."
After a short moment she said, "Yes, but I still have my family."
He nodded and said, "Merry Christmas to them and to you."
"Oh, hang on a sec." Willow rushed into the living room and came back with an envelope for him. "Merry Christmas to you, too, despite everything." She gave him a smile.
"Thank you, Miss Rosenberg." He turned around and left.
She looked after him, a sad look on her face, then she closed the door. She put the letters on the living-room table and took a look at the larger envelopes. Her face lit up.
She ripped one of them open and took out the letter to read. "'Dear Miss Rosenberg, we're glad to inform you...' Yes! Oh this is so great. Dawn! Xander!" She looked around the living room and then went out on the porch. "Are you still out here?" she asked as she opened the door, but seeing the porch empty, she went back inside and called up the stairs before checking the wardrobe and finding Dawn's coat gone.
She grabbed the phone and started dialing a number.
"No way. Girls like bad boys but Hayden's haircut in Episode III is way of the past. I can see how they..."
Dawn's cell phone started ringing and she pulled it out and checked the caller ID.
"Oh, damn. We forgot to tell Willow where we went." She picked up. "I'm sorry, Willow. Yes, we went for a walk. I know, we forgot, we weren't gonna stay long." She rolled her eyes at Xander. "Have Buffy and Giles brought the tree back yet? Weird, I didn't think that even Buffy could shop that long for a tree. Yeah, you're right." She looked down the street. "I can't see them but they'll have to come any minute now. We'll keep going and catch a ride back with them, then. Yeah. See you, bye."
"What time is it?" he asked Dawn.
"3:20," she answered after checking her cell phone.
"Already? Time sure flies by when you're having meaningful conversations." Dawn snorted and he smiled. Then he turned more serious. "But Buffy and Giles really should have been back by now, shouldn't they?"
"Maybe they're fighting over which tree to get."
"Buffy, yes, but Giles would probably say something like 'whatever you want, let's just get out of here'."
"He can be stubborn, too."
"Yes, but this is a practical, manly thing to do. Like before you take out a woman, you tell them whatever they want to hear because you'd like to at least make it to the movie in time for the last show at midnight, if you miss the earlier showing."
"I'm not like that."
"Not yet. But wait until you start going out with that Brian or whatever his name..."
"How do you know about Brian?!"
"How could I not when all I hear about when Liz comes over is Brian." His voice assumed a high pitch girly tone. "Did you see what she wore today? Pssst... Brian...psst.... I neeeeed that jacket. Brian. Psst, there's Xander."
"Ha. Ha. Very funny. I'll tell Liz, we'll have to stop talking outside of my room. Not that anything you said is true. We so don't talk like that. We talk about a lot of things. The other day we talked about the horrors of war."
"In the 'Lord of the Rings' I bet."
"It was just an example! Besides it's not like you're the king of 'meaningful conversation', Mr. I-miss-Andrew-to- feed-my-inner-geek."
"My inner geek is perfectly happy, thank you very much. And I never said I was the most mature person on the planet."
"But you make fun of me like I am the kid," she said testily.
"You are a kid and I make fun of you because that's what friends do." She folded her arms in front of her and scowled. He laughed and then tried to woo her. "Friends? Pretty, please. Oh Lady Dawn, the mature one. You know, I think I even see a few wrinkles," he said, leaning closer and pointing. "Yeah, right there, around the eyes."
She stuck her tongue out.
"Not too old to do that, apparently."
"I'm not sure this is the right way," Giles said skeptically.
They stood in the middle of a sewer tunnel, the water as high as Buffy's boots.
"Well, we went down the other tunnel until the only way to continue on was a good five feet up. That ugly thing of a cap that he wore was wedged at the junction, so this must be the right one."
"Of course, but what still baffles me is that a man would wander off and get lost down here, when all he had to do was climb back up the way he came."
"Unless you've heard of things that capture people and carry them wherever they want against their will. Does the word 'demon' ring a bell?"
"Vaguely so. I think I was in denial. I can't believe I'm spending Christmas Eve hunting demons in flooded sewers."
"Well, you better believe it. I'm sensing badness nearby."
"Anything specific?" he asked suddenly alert.
"No just a general Slayer Signal, lighting up the night sky. I feel like something is moving. Around us." He turned and looked around them. "There isn't, Giles. I've been looking myself all the time. But the feeling is there."
"Do you have a weapon with you?"
"Stake and a knife, which do you want?"
She gave him a rather small and fragile looking blade. At his look she shrugged. "It's for trimming the flowers."
He sighed and they continued on.
Willow scrubbed violently at an unruly spot on the table. The rest of the kitchen seemed to be in order. The doorbell rang and with a final threatening, "I'll get you later!" directed at the spot, she went to the door.
"Where have you... Jo!"
"Willow, hi," she said with a smile. She had donned a coat against the rain, but water still ran down her face. In one hand she was carrying a bag. "The weather was so beautiful, I thought I'd come over."
"You can almost see a bit of sun," Willow piped in and stepped aside.
Jo stepped onto the welcome mat and wiped off her feet as she ran a hand through her wet strands.
"It's the same thing every year, but I don't pretend that I could really get used to it. This is for you." She got a small packet out of her bag.
"Oh, thank you! I was going to ask Buffy to get it, but I forgot in all the rushing," Willow said examining the contents of the packet.
"I told Lessa about the ritual you wanted to perform and she gave this to me. She assured me they were hand grown in our gardens."
"I'll have to thank her tomorrow. Is everything all right for tomorrow? Enough food? No giant beanstalks in the gardens?"
"No. As far as I know, all plants are exactly the size they should be, although one of the cakes seems not quite natural-sized, if you ask me."
Willow smiled. "I'm really looking forward to tomorrow. Buffy is going on about Christmas family traditions - which is great - but... first of all, not a Christian," she pointed at herself, "second, I just like the idea of a celebration that is not about following set rules, but about being together, people you love, nature, magic, energy, everything around us, without having to put a stamp on it."
"I'm afraid Deborah will demand that some rules will be adhered to, but I'm sure you'll enjoy it. My first time was a particularly wonderful experience for me. Just when I needed it," she said looking at a faraway place for a second.
"I'm sure I'll love it." There was a short pause. "Thanks for the herbs." She lifted the packet once more.
"Oh, you're welcome. It really was all Lessa. I was just the delivery girl."
"I wouldn't say 'just' in this weather. I'm starting to get worried about Buffy and Giles."
Jo's interest was piqued. "They are not here?"
"They went out to get the tree. But they wanted to be back by three."
"Half an hour ago."
"I know, no big deal really. And Buffy can get a bit... obsessive."
"Ah," Jo said non-committally. "If you don't mind, I'd like to wait for them to get back. I have something for Rupert here." She lifted her bag.
Willow hesitated for a second, then nodded. "Sure. Make yourself comfortable."
"Xander, you're freezing."
"No, I'm not." He shuddered. "Well, maybe a little. Shouldn't they be back by now?"
"Yes. It's not like them to be so late. Unless..." Doubt appeared on Dawn's face.
"You think something happened to them?" He rubbed his wet sleeves in a fruitless effort to warm himself.
"I'd say 'What could possibly happen to them in a town like this,' but..."
"But this being our life... I know what you mean."
"We should still go back, before you catch a cold and go all whiney-guy on us for a week or two," she teased.
"Hey colds are nasty! It's much tougher than losing an eye, because you can't eat when you're sick," Xander pointed out. "Let's keep going a bit further. We'll have a pretty good view from that corner and if they're still not coming, we can head back home."
They walked a few meters until they were looking down a slope.
There was a good view from the top of the slope, but there was no car in sight. Water ran down the street and poured into the gutters. As they stood there, the manhole cover close to their feet was suddenly lifted and pushed aside. A muddy hand came out and approached Dawn's ankle.
"Maybe they went to Eugene to get the tree," Dawn said, not noticing the threat from the sewers.
"I wouldn't put it past Buffy. Okay, let's go. I think I'll make that shower into a nice long bath." He rubbed his sleeves again, when Dawn suddenly screeched. "Dawn?!"
She took a shaky step back, but grabbed him on his arms.
"Let go!! Leave me alone," she yelled and started kicking and he saw the hand wrapped around her foot. Dawn was striking out at it with her other foot, but the hand ignored her.
He put his arms around her waist and pulled as hard as he could, but the hand didn't let go. Xander took a deep breath and pulled again.
The muddy hand slipped and Dawn wrenched free, but momentum caused Xander to fall backward land heavily on the ground. His groan stopped abruptly when his head hit the ground.
Dawn tumbled past him where she landed sideways with enough energy to start rolling down the street. The angle of rolling changed until halfway down the slope she had slowed down so much that she finally stopped turning and lay face down near the sidewalk.
The rain poured down onto their two bodies.