The giant mud monster stood threateningly at the end of the room throwing shadows over their faces.
"Alrighty, let's try it the old-fashioned way," Buffy said and took a few steps towards the creature.
She got out her stake and aimed at the center of its 'body'. The stake went right through the mud and hit the wall behind.
"Well, then I guess it's the other old-fashioned way," she quipped and charged.
One large arm swung towards her, but she ducked and turned, kicking enough mud out of the arm to make the 'hand' fall to the ground. In another swift move she was facing the creature again.
Xander and Dawn started pulling the other people free.
Giles came up behind Buffy and whispered, "Do you have a plan?"
"Kick it until it doesn't get up again?"
Together they attacked. Buffy jumped up and rolled forward in the air, slicing up several arms on her way down. Giles used his own arms like weapons gliding through the mud and severing more arms.
Buffy made a few roundhouse kicks managing to tear through the body, when suddenly a muddy arm lifted her up by her throat from behind. She struggled in the air, unable to remove enough mud from the arm to get free.
"Giles!" she gurgled.
He jumped to her rescue, but a large arm blocked his advance and knocked him away. He flew through the air, crashing back-first into the wall and dropping down.
Buffy eyes widened in horror and then narrowed with angry determination.
She swung back and forth until she had enough momentum to fully turn around. The arm twisted along with her, but she was able to get her own arm in between the monster and her, just as she swung towards the body. With a quick shift or her arm, her neck was free and she flew through the center of the monster. Spreading her arms and legs, she managed to rip a sizable whole through it. She quickly turned around, kicked through one end of the mud 'donut', continued to turn and kicked out the other end with her other leg.
Finally the upper torso of the mud monster fell to the ground.
Buffy rushed to Giles. He was breathing laboriously. She put her arm around him. When he nodded towards the mud heap, she turned back to see it rebuilding itself again.
"What are you, a Timex watch? I'll give you a lickin'."
She kicked at the mud making it splatter against the wall. Again and again, she removed what was built up until suddenly it stopped and the mud remained puddled on the ground, looking still and dirty as mud should. Buffy looked around, then up to the ceiling.
She went back to Giles, whose breath had calmed. "Anything broken? Ribs, arms, pride?"
"None of the above, actually." She helped him up just as Xander and Dawn joined them.
Behind them, the fearful man stared at the remains of the mud creature. "We were all going to die," he said turning to Buffy in wonder.
"Die? Uh, from what?" Buffy said not sure how to explain. Denial might work.
"I think you might have hit your head when you slipped and fell into the sewers," Xander told him.
The men looked skeptical. "But the..."
"The mud? Oh, just a play of the light. Shadows can look very real in dim light," Giles added.
"Oh yeah, and weren't they spooky? Attack of the killer shadows, grrrr," Dawn played along.
The man turned back to the mud, scratching his dirty chin.
"Let's get out of here," Buffy said to the others.
She climbed up a ladder in the wall and opened the cover on top. She lifted her face waiting for the rain to wash it, when she realized that it had stopped raining.
"Who would have thought I'd ever wish it hadn't stopped raining," she said looking down at the others.
Ethan looked through a window into the dark sky.
"Well, that was over rather quickly," he said in disappointment, turning towards his bed that was covered with books and sheets of paper. "Back to the drawing board."
When Buffy, Giles, Xander and Dawn finally arrived at Scobie Manor, they didn't immediately get out of the car.
"Can't we just bring the food and decorations outside and spent the evening here?" Dawn said spiritlessly. She rubbed at one of the many spots of mud on the seats without any real effort.
Buffy looked at her, not sure how to comfort her sister.
"Who else is for not moving ever again?" Dawn asked.
Xander sneezed. "Sounds tempting. On the other hand I'm all for having a bath and dry clothes, so my vote's for that. Who's with me?"
Dawn's eyes glazed over. "A bath," she sighed. "Wetness that is neither cold nor dirty. Water that will dry without leaving a crust. All right, I think I might consider moving."
"I'll help you, if you'll help me," Xander said opening the door on his side.
Dawn labored to get out herself. "Is this even possible?" she said with a frown. "Can two people who can hardly walk on their own help each other?"
"I'm for the trial and error method. Besides, I can still walk on my own," Xander said indignantly putting an arm around Dawn, while she put hers around his shoulder.
"Sure. Want me to push you?"
"Yeah, if you want me to pull you."
They staggered to the entrance, teasing each other.
Buffy looked at Giles, not smiling, but also not quite as disappointed as he had feared. "You ready to endeavor non-crustiness?"
"Like Xander and Dawn, I'm afraid I require a bit of assistance."
Buffy's eyes widened in surprise, before she caught herself.
"Even though I have once again been miraculously spared from being hit on the head, it did knock the wind out of me quite a bit," he said with a crooked smile.
"It's not... you're just usually all manly and 'Oh, I am perfectly capable of handling myself'," she said, the last in a deep voice and fake British accent.
He laughed out loud. "Manliness and asking for help aren't mutually exclusive."
"Says the man who kept grumbling about me cutting his food," she pointed out with a slight pout.
"Well, there is a fine line between a man in need of assistance and being treated like a child."
"Oh yeah?" she said in a manner that indicated that she was looking for a way to defend herself but couldn't think of anything. "I just wanted to take care of you," she simply said after a moment. "Maybe I went a little overboard. But I don't get to pamper you very often."
Giles looked at her surprised. "Buffy," he started, but didn't know how to continue.
"I know, I know," Buffy said looking at her hands, not seeing Giles' confused expression. "It's not my job to pamper you. But... you have done so much for us over the years. For me. And there's little chance I'll ever be able to repay..."
"Buffy, you don't have to repay anything," he interrupted her.
"But I want to," she said firmly, turning to him. "You were always there for me when I needed you and you went away when you felt that I needed you to go," she explained. "Now having you around gives me a feeling of... no, I'm not gonna say like my Mom being around," she added pre-emptively and he gave her a short smile of acknowledgement. "I feel as if everything will be all right, because I can always turn to you and you will be there and do the right thing." They looked at each other for a long moment. "And I wish I could be that person for you, too. I know I might not be all that good with doing the right thing," she said looking away for a moment. "But at least I'd like to always be there for you for a start," she continued her eyes now staring fixedly into his. "No matter what comes, no matter if you and... Jo," she forced herself to mention her, but couldn't bring herself to go any further.
They both looked to the entrance, where Dawn and Xander had made it inside and Jo was looking out. Behind her they saw Brad.
Buffy got out of the car and went around to Giles' side, helping him out of the car and up the walkway to the door. Jo rushed out and flung her arms around Giles.
"Rupert, I was so worried." She kissed him and Buffy looked away.
She was still helping Giles stand and the situation was so obviously uncomfortable to her that even Brad saw it. He skeptically looked at Giles and Jo, then at Buffy and gave her an understanding grin. She had to smile in return.
"Jo, you'll get dirt all over you," Giles said kindly.
"Do you think I care?" she answered with feeling.
"What are you guys waiting for?" Willow asked from inside and Buffy exhaled gratefully.
They helped Giles inside and Brad gave Buffy a quick kiss, which prompted Giles to look at the ground and Jo to put her arm through his.
"I'm sorry, I couldn't make it," Buffy said to Brad.
"Oh please, I'm glad you're okay, that's all that matters. We can do it another day."
She smiled. "Yes, let's."
Brad smiled back and looked her up and down. "Not the prettiest sight in town, I know," Buffy said self- consciously, stepping a bit closer to Giles as if she tried to hide behind him.
"No, no," Brad said immediately. She gave him a look. "Well, you've looked a lot better, but I wasn't thinking that. I was thinking that you'll probably want to take a shower."
"Make it a bath and you got it," she said with a laugh. Then she turned more serious. "Thank you for coming and for understanding." Brad smiled and kissed her again and then he went to get his jacket.
Buffy quickly glanced over to Jo, but didn't say anything. When Brad returned she asked, "Brad, before you go, would you be able to help bring in the tree?"
"Of course," he said looking at Buffy, Giles and Jo, silently asking who he would be helping.
"Jo, would you mind helping Brad before you go?" Giles asked, shifting his weight towards Buffy. Jo looked a bit surprised as he continued, "Buffy can help me up the stairs. It will take a while for us to clean up and I think the others at the Coven are waiting for you."
"I'll let them wait if you need me," she said with a loving smile.
"I'm quite all right," he assured her. "Thank you for waiting for me." He kissed her again and Buffy looked down the hall at nothing in particular, while Brad watched the whole scene with interest.
Willow came down the stairs with Xander who had a blanket around him and looked drier if not much cleaner then before. He went into the living room while Willow exchanged a look with Buffy.
Giles and Jo slowly stopped kissing. "I'll see you tomorrow," he whispered in her ear.
"I'll be waiting," Jo whispered back, stealing another quick kiss. Then she let go of Giles' arm and turned to Brad and Buffy. "The tree is outside?"
"On the car," Buffy said. With a last look at Giles, Jo left.
"Merry Christmas," Brad said with a smile at everyone and followed her.
"To you, too, and thanks for coming... both of you," Buffy called after them. Then she exhaled loudly.
Willow came closer. "Are you hurt?" she asked Giles.
"I'll be fine, thank you, Willow."
"We'll go upstairs, get out of these," Buffy said pointing at their clothes with her free hand.
"Good thinking. What about...?" She nodded towards the open door.
"They are getting the tree and then leaving," Buffy said.
"'Kay. I'll put everything out of harm's way for them."
She started for the living room, when Xander's voice came from there. "And get me cookies."
"And get him cookies," Willow repeated turning in mid-motion and went into the kitchen to do Xander's bidding, while Buffy helped Giles up the stairs.
The faint irregular sound of "Rocking around the Christmas tree" came from the bathroom that Dawn occupied, while opposite Giles and Buffy had a short argument over who would get into the bath first.
"Giles, if you don't go in there, I'll undress you myself and push you in," Buffy said hands on her hips.
Something in his eyes flickered, but he responded calmly, "But I really don't need a bath. A shower will be quicker."
"Yes, and what I need for Christmas is you slipping and breaking your neck." She went past him into the bathroom and started to fill it. "And take your time. I'll be at the door if you need any help."
"Buffy," he began to protest. "I'm perfectly capable of..." Her version of the resolve face stopped him.
Her features softened. "Please, Giles."
He nodded softly. She left the bathroom and he closed the door after her. He slowly went the two steps to the tub and carefully sat down, putting his hand on his back and closing his eyes in pain. Then he removed his jacket and began unbuttoning his soaked shirt button by button, the strain on him obvious.
In her room Buffy carefully removed her dirty clothes and slipped into a bathrobe. A white silk blouse and black pants lay waiting on the bed. Buffy walked past and sat down on the floor next to the door to the bathroom. She leaned against it, hugging her arms around her angled legs. She closed her eyes in exhaustion.
"Buffy," Giles said from the bathroom.
She stirred sleepily. "Yeah."
The door opened and she fell backwards, looking up at a fully dressed Giles.
"Have you been sitting here all the time?" he asked, looking down in surprise.
"Told you I'd be here for you."
She turned onto her knees and he helped her up, averting his gaze from the view that the bathrobe afforded as she stood up. She adjusted the robe and asked, "Are you feeling better?"
"Yes," he said with a relieved smile. "I'm afraid my back will hurt for a couple of days, but otherwise nothing's amiss that a good night's sleep and some food won't cure."
"Do I need to help you down?"
"I think I can try by myself and I'll call Willow if I have any problems."
Her brow was still creased in worry and she was hesitant to let him go.
"Are you all right?" he asked her.
"Fine and dandy," she said with an unconvincing smile.
His gaze went to her neck that was still faintly red from her fight. She covered it up with one hand, looking at the floor.
He lifted her chin up to him and quietly said, "It will fade."
She returned his gaze and dropped the hand from her neck.
He cupped her cheek for a moment and she opened her mouth slightly, looking at him with big eyes.
He gave her a kind smile and left her alone.
The living room was warm from the fire and filled with the smell of cookies. The undecorated tree stood in a corner. Buffy stood in the door, not wanting to disturb the scene in front of her.
Giles and Xander sat on one couch, while Willow and Dawn sat on the other. Dawn had a sticking-plaster on her forehead and was lying down, her head in Willow's lap. She was nibbling on a cookie, while Willow stroked her long hair.
Xander had had his share of cookies and other food, if the crumbs on his pullover and the half empty packs on the table were any indication. He wasn't eating at the moment though, but instead resting against Giles, who had his arm around the younger man's shoulder. They both looked tired, but nonetheless content.
"Buffy," Willow interrupted her musings.
The others looked at Buffy and she stepped closer.
"We weren't sure what you'd want us to do for dinner," Willow said with a guilty look at the table.
"I'm sorry, I couldn't wait," Xander said, but Buffy shook her head.
"It's all right." She smiled at Xander reassuringly.
"Are you sure, Buffy?" Giles asked. "I think there are a few restaurants open today. We could get something."
"And leave our comfy home?" She shook her head and took a plate with cookies from the table. "Hmm, they smell delicious."
Willow beamed. "Try some. And give Giles one, too. He refused to eat while we didn't know what you wanted."
Buffy turned to Giles and gave him a stern look. He raised his brows, all wide-eyed innocence and she sat down next to him and gave him one of Willow's cookies.
"Excellent," he said after a bite.
"Yeah, Will, great job. But is it ok to eat them now? Didn't you make them for tomorrow?" Buffy asked a bit uncomfortably.
"Nah," Willow waved her hand dismissively. "There'll be more than enough cakes and sweets. Better to feed the hungry." She grinned at Buffy, who grinned back and took a hearty bite.
"Speaking of which," Dawn said from Willow's lap and held out her hand. Buffy put some cookies in it. "Gracias," Dawn said and began munching quietly again.
Buffy smiled and looked around at her family. Her gaze turned to the tree.
"We can decorate it now," Giles said trying to move up, against Xander's murmured protests, but Buffy stopped him.
"No." She leaned against Giles and he put his free arm around her. "It's perfect," she said smiling contentedly. "This is all I wanted for Christmas, us safe and together."
"And dry," Xander said sleepily.
"And clean," Dawn added in-between bites.
Buffy smiled and snuggled into Giles. He put his head against hers, holding her as closely as he could without disturbing Xander on his other side.
The only sound was the sizzle of the fire and the crunch of cookies being eaten until Xander piped up, "Hey, we still have Timmy."