Dawn opened her eyes. Rain was still pouring down, hitting her coat and face in a constant drum.
"Xander?" she asked weakly. There was no answer. When she slowly lifted her head, her face contorted in pain. Further up the street she could see Xander still lying on the macadam. Using her arms for support, she sat up, immediately hissing in pain. Carefully she checked her left arm for injuries. She could still move it, although she had to bite her lip once or twice to cope through the pain.
"Dawn?" Xander called down to her. He had sat up as well and was now trying to get up. As he did, his hand went instinctively to the back of his head. She couldn't really see his face, but could tell from his tone of voice that he wasn't feeling any better.
"I'm okay," she shouted back and added quietly, "well, at least the arm isn't broken this time."
After finally managing to get to his feet, Xander stumbled down the street to help her. With his arm to steady her, Dawn was able to get to her feet.
"You sure?" he asked as he scanned her face. When she saw him frown at her forehead, she reached up and touched it. She pulled her hand away and saw a bit of blood, before the downpour washed it away. "It's just a scratch," he assured her, then he lifted two fingers in front of her face. "But just in case, how many fingers do you see?"
"Five, but only two of them are stretched out," she said matter-of-factly.
He glared at her. "Good to know that your annoyance center is all intact." Then his countenance softened. "We should get you home. Who knows when this thing will return."
She looked up the street where it had attacked her. "What was that?"
"No idea. Sewer monster?" he shrugged.
She raised her eyebrows. "There are sewer monsters?"
"Not that I know, but I said the same thing about vampires a few years back," Xander said.
"Getting your point."
"Come on, we should get moving. Can you walk?"
Dawn tried to take a step, but her knee collapsed and she cried out.
"I'm guessing that means no."
"I can... just not well." She carefully tried another step with the same leg. "See, no problem," she said forcing a smile.
"How about letting me help you?" He put an arm around her, and they took a few steps. Dawn hissed and Xander breathed hard, but they managed.
"Not so bad," he said proudly.
"For snails, maybe."
As they staggered past the manhole, two large muddy hands crawled out and followed.
"Hey, Rome wasn't built in a..." Xander was cut off as the oversized hands grabbed them, pulling him and then Dawn, down into the sewers.
"There's something else."
Buffy pointed the flashlight at what turned out to be a small Santa cap. Her face fell and she took a step back. Giles watched her carefully, as she silently stared at the cap.
"It doesn't have to mean anything," he offered quickly. "Maybe it was a child fed-up with wearing such a silly cap. It could have been thrown away."
Buffy shook her head slowly, her face unhappy. "It's not..." She lifted her face to look him straight in the eye. "We both know there is something down here," she said seriously. "Not all of the hats and scarves that we found could have been thrown away."
"We'll find out what it is, Buffy," he said softly.
She looked back at the cap again, frowning. "It's not that. I'm used to fighting the big and not-so-big baddies. I'm even used to innocent people getting hurt. But it's Christmas Eve... I wanted to have one peaceful evening with my family."
"We can still have a peaceful evening with the others," he assured her, putting a hand on her shoulder.
She still didn't look at him. "But not like I'd planned. Maybe we can find this thing, kill it and rush back, but we'll hardly want dinner at 10 and..." She stole a shameful glance at him, "I keep wondering if we can just take the tree if this guy is dead. God, I'm the most horrible person in the world." She covered her eyes with her hand.
Giles took a deep breath. "Buffy." He pulled the hand from her face and she looked at him with big eyes and a sad face. "You are not the most horrible person in the world. A bit, well, tiresome sometimes, but not horrible at all." He grinned as a frown wrinkled her forehead.
"And we can still have the peaceful evening you wanted. Maybe not today, but there's still Boxing Day." At her questioning face, he added, "The day after Christmas."
"Why would anyone spar the day after Christmas?"
"Not the sport, Buffy. Boxing Day is a British tradition. Long ago..."
"Forget it," she cut him off. At his slightly hurt look she added, "I mean you can tell us all later. I just think we might want to catch the monster before we go into full-length explanations of all the holidays."
He nodded and waited for her to go on. Buffy hesitated, and then said sincerely, "You're right. It won't be the end of the world, if this day doesn't go like I planned. Not even figuratively. It's just that I'd hoped to begin this new tradition for us."
"I understand, Buffy. But I'm afraid there are always going to be things that we cannot control and I hate to see you so dejected by it."
"I know and you're right." She took a deep breath and stood up straight. "No more dejecting. Let's kick this thing's ass from here to the Pacific. It's not gonna live long enough to regret ruining my Christmas."
She walked on with determination and Giles followed her, a smile playing on his face.
"Oooh, Giles will love this," Willow said thumbing excitedly through a large and rather ancient looking book. "I've compiled all kinds of demon and otherworldly infos on a DVD for him, with index, keywords and these cute little icons, but I'm sure he'll like this present more. It's just not the same for him."
Jo smiled. "It's not really a present. I mean, it's for him, but it's not from me. Deborah heard him complain, I mean talk, about the need to rebuild his library and today she gave it to me. I'm just the delivery girl, like the herbs."
"Hey, never underestimate the importance of delivery. You're like Santa Jo, bringing us what the Coven elves made in their workshops."
"Now that you put it like that," Jo laughed.
Willow frowned. "You know, I'm trying to picture Lessa and Deborah in Elf costumes. It's really not hard at all with Lessa, Deborah however..."
The two women burst out laughing. They tried to calm down, but each time they looked at each other, they started again. Finally Willow took the large book and carried it into the hall, still snickering, her eyes wet from laughing. She took a breath to calm herself.
"I'll put this on Buffy's letter from the University. I hope she'll be as happy as Giles is about this," Willow said.
Jo followed Willow, sobering up on the way as well. "I didn't know she had applied to college. Won't things be busy for Buffy with both school and the job?"
"Well, she was able to manage a job, taking care of Dawn, training an army and facing the apocalypse all at the same time. Compared to that this'll be a piece of cake," Willow said lightly.
Jo looked at a demonic creature on the book cover, her face now serious. "I can't imagine what it must be like."
"I don't think anyone can. I have or at least had my share of power," Willow said shifting uncomfortably and crossing her arms in front of her, "but I can't say I've dealt with it anyway near as responsibly as Buffy and Giles do. Maybe you have to be 'chosen' to cope with it."
"Rupert's not a Slayer though," Jo pointed out.
"No. He doesn't really fit the 'one girl' description, does he?" Willow grinned, but quickly grew serious again. "But he can't just up and quit anymore than Buffy can."
"But it's different now with all the new Slayers and Watchers. Once the Council is re-established, Rupert can finally move on to more normal things. Like his job at the university."
Willow evaded Jo's look for a moment, before saying, "Perhaps."
Jo nodded, obviously satisfied. Willow fidgeted with the demon book, when the bell rang, preventing any further awkwardness.
"Finally," she said rushing to the door. When she opened it however, it was neither Buffy and Giles nor Xander and Dawn. Instead, Brad greeted her with a shy smile.
"Willow, hello. I'm sorry, is Buffy here?"
From the hall Jo nodded towards Brad, when she suddenly saw the demon book lying in full display. She opened the drawer, quickly pushing both book and envelope inside and closed it again. Then she approached the door.
"I was just telling Brad, that Buffy and Giles went to get the Christmas tree," Willow told her.
"I didn't want to disturb you on Christmas Eve, but I thought I'd better check in on my way home. Buffy and I were going to meet and I didn't hear from her."
"Right now there's nothing much to disturb. Just a whole lot of waiting." There was a short silence. "Which you're welcome to join," Willow added.
"If you're sure that I'm not disturbing you."
"Way sure. And hey, if it makes you feel any better, I can promise to kick you out the minute they come back."
"Okay," he finally said with a smile.
Xander opened his eyes to find a dark grey ceiling above and dark grey walls around. He wasn't as cold as before, because he was surrounded by... something. When he dropped his head to look around, his eyes widened in shock.
Opposite him, several people lay up to the neck in mud. They were neatly positioned next to each other, their heads against the wall. On the far end, he could saw the helmet of what was probably someone who worked for the city. A large flashlight lay next to the helmeted person, flooding the room with light.
He also saw water dripping through a closed manhole in the ceiling and there were tunnels leading out of the chamber.
Most of the people seemed to be unconscious. One woman was staring ahead of her, while a man fixated on Xander with a glum face. Xander tried to get up and out of the mud, when he heard Dawn next to him.
"Don't move," she hissed. When he looked over he saw that she, too, was up to the neck in mud, as were the people behind her.
"We need to get out of here," he said.
Dawn glared at him, but before she could say anything, the man opposite them spoke up in a toneless voice. "We're all going to die."
"If you move, they'll suffocate you," Dawn said ignoring the man. At Xander's doubtful look she added, "You see that guy over there with the incredibly fake looking hairpiece?"
He searched in the direction she nodded towards and saw a man with a dark mop on his head. "Yeah?"
"When he tried to get free, the mud started pulling him down and... I'm not really sure, but it wasn't pretty. And it only stopped when he fainted."
"We're all going to die," the man opposite Xander repeated like a mantra from hell.
"But what is it?" Xander asked turning his attention back to Dawn.
"How should I know? Giles is the resident demon expert. It could be someone with telekinetic powers controlling the mud or maybe tons of tiny little organisms that unite to form... this," she said looking around.
"Like in that Powerpuff Girl episode where the Professor had to shrink them so that..." At Dawn's look, he stopped himself. "Maybe it's a spell."
"Never a bad guess," Dawn said.
"We're all going to die," came the voice from the opposite wall.
"And I hope they start with you," Dawn muttered towards the man.
"Are you okay?" Xander asked.
Dawn turned her exhausted face to him. "Apart from the obvious, yeah. You?"
"Well, at least it's not raining in here."
She laughed and he grinned at her, when suddenly a scream came from the tunnel on their right. It was soon followed by the body of a woman carried in on a wave of mud.
The scream echoed off the walls of the tunnel. Buffy and Giles looked at each other and broke out in a run as one.
The screams continued and Buffy ran faster, getting a bit ahead of Giles until she slipped and fell. He was at her side in a moment and pulled her up.
"Everything all right?" he asked still holding her by her arm.
She spat out repeatedly, screwing up her face in disgust. "Ewww. Yuck! Please tell me it's been raining so much that this is pretty much pure water."
"Most certainly," he said with a straight face.
"Don't ever tell me the truth." She looked at him unhappily. Then she added as an afterthought, "At least about this."
They ran on, not quite as fast as before, as Buffy kept her eyes on the ground.
Suddenly the screams stopped. She glanced back at Giles, his face mirroring her worry.
They continued on and after another turn, arrived in a larger chamber that was filled with mud and people.
"Buffy!" came Dawn's voice from the back of the room.
"Dawn?" Buffy rushed inside.
Giles lifted his hand, but didn't stop her, as he looked around in growing horror.
"Buffy, be careful," Xander said.
Giles could only see a room filled with mud and victims, but there was no sign of a creature, demon, human or even animal. He followed Buffy, scanning the room as he went.
"What happened?" he asked in the direction of Xander and Dawn.
Buffy put down the flashlight and leaned down to help her sister up, when the girl said, "No, I can't move."
"Are you hurt?" Buffy asked sticking her arms into the mud.
"No, it's just that it will stop us."
With little effort Buffy pulled Dawn out of the mud.
"What will stop us?" Giles asked still looking around the room.
Xander sat up, surprised when there wasn't any resistance.
"The mud," he explained. "Before, it came all alive when we tried to move."
Confused, Buffy turned to Giles, but he was frowning as well.
"We're all going to die."
"Thanks for letting us know again," Xander said annoyed, but when he looked at the man, the man wasn't staring at Xander as before, but at the end of the room, where Buffy and Giles had entered.
A heap of mud was building continuously. Arms started to grow from it; two, four, more and more until the mud creature looked almost like an evil tree, filling the room from floor to ceiling.
"Maybe we are going to die," Xander said in a small voice.