"So will any of your colleagues be there? Ones who aren’t evil-sexual-predators, that is?" Buffy asked Giles as they walked through the college hallway towards his office.
"Most of them, yes. It really seems to be quite the event here in Whispering Pines, although I can’t quite fathom how much you could build around the theme of slugs."
"Just wait and see. Daisy has been talking up a storm all week. I’d almost say it was scary, if I wasn’t, you know, me."
"Yes, thankfully the town’s mollusk obsession still seems a big step apart from actually being frightening. I must admit, I’m looking forward to Saturday. The weather forecast looks quite promising and we can spend the whole day together."
"And when you say ‘we’…," Buffy asked.
"I meant both as a family and as you and I," he said. He stopped suddenly and looked at her. "I mean, if you want to."
"Yes! I mean, yes, I want both. I’m sorry, Giles, I didn’t mean to say or imply that I didn’t. Actually I can’t wait for some out and alone time with you. It’s just… new to hear you say ’we’ and mean ’you and me’ in a ’we’ way. If you know what I mean."
"Amazingly, I do," Giles said with a laugh. He unlocked his office door and held it open for her. "I am sure it will be quite an experience."
"Hey, if it goes just half as good as the others seem to think, then we’re all set," she said.
"Did it bother you, what they said the other day?"
"No, not really. They’re right. Not that they should make us do it, but that it’s time. It’s just with everything that’s happened…"
Giles closed the door, shifted his books and bag to his left hand, and pulled her into a one-armed hug. "I understand. You worry about Dawn."
Buffy leaned into him gratefully. "Yes, I do, even though I try to cut back on the smothering attention. Do you think she’ll be alright? Really alright?"
"Buffy, your sister is doing remarkably well. She’s an amazing young woman. Something that clearly runs in the family." Buffy squeezed him tightly for a moment and then smiled up at him. He looked down with a grin and asked, "Better?"
"Always when I’m with you," she said with a smile. "I’m sure I’m overcompensating with Dawn. It's just, well, I think she needs to have some positive experiences to help her forget how Ethan hurt her."
"I feel the same way about Xander. I want him to have a good time at the Slug Fest, too," Giles said seriously. "Carrie seems like a lovely young woman and I hope she’ll give him another chance."
"You’re feeling bad again about the jacket." She scolded him mildly, "You know it wasn’t your fault."
Giles stepped back and went to his desk. "I suppose." He shook his head ruefully. "Aren’t we just the pair?"
"We’re a pair. That’s all that counts."
"Hey, Miss Whedon!" Dawn hurried down the hall to catch up with the school nurse who stopped in front of her office door.
"Hello, Dawn. How are you this morning?" Carrie unlocked the door and dropped the keys back into her purse. She turned and looked the teenager over with a professional gaze. "Any problem with the headaches coming back?"
Dawn shook her head. "Nope. I’ve been totally pain free for the last two weeks. Well, except for Buffy. But she’s a pain in a totally different part of my anatomy."
Carrie smiled and assumed her best school nurse voice. "In that case, Miss Summers, I expect to not see you in my office again this year."
"Awwww. Just when I was getting to where I really liked that fake leather couch. I hate to think that I won’t see it again." Dawn shifted her books to a more comfortable position and leaned her shoulder against the wall. "And speaking of seeing something again, when are you going to forgive Xander and go out with him?"
Carrie tried to look stern but ended up smiling. "Subtlety isn’t one of your strong points, is it?"
"I’m usually a lot more sneaky," Dawn assured her. "But Xander really, really likes you and he’s miserable ’cause he knows the whole cursed jacket thing sounds totally unbelievable and he’s sure that you’re never going to forgive him for being such a jerk and he really wants to take you to the festival tomorrow only he’s afraid to ask because he’s sure you’ll say no," she finished in a rush and then drew a deep, gulping breath.
Carrie stared at her for a moment, clearly thinking it over.
Dawn rushed to encourage her. "Pleaaaasssseee. Please. Please. Please. Nothing says romance like gooey, slimy, slippery slugs!"
Carrie laughed. "Okay. Tell him to call me this evening. But I’m not promising anything other than I’ll listen to what he has to say."
"You won’t be sorry. Xander’s a great guy… when he’s not under the influence of an evil curse." Dawn started to back down the hall quickly. "Expect him to call after dinner tonight," she called out.
"So you talked her into going?"
Dawn yelped and whirled around to find herself almost nose-to-nose with Mark. She crossed her eyes and grinned before grabbing his arm and tugging him toward Biology class. "Not exactly. But she said she’s going to talk to him. I’ve done my part, now all Xander has to do is not screw it up."
Mark looked skeptical. "Don’t count on it. He may be older and everything, but being a guy and screwing up with girls we like is kinda built into our genetic code or something."
Dawn offered him an engaging smile. "You seem to be doing okay about not screwing up. The slug-shaped sucker taped to my locker with an invitation to the Slug Fest was the most interesting way I’ve ever been asked out on a date."
He cleared his throat. "Really? I wasn’t sure. I thought maybe you might think it was kinda gross?"
"Oh, it was completely gross," Dawn said happily. "But in a totally sweet way."
He looked confused. "And that’s good?"
She flashed him a flirtatious look. "Absolutely. See ya!" She started back down the hall.
Mark shook his head as he watched her leave. "Even if I live to be fifty, I’m never going to understand women."
"Pizza night, the one thing guaranteed to put a smile on Xander’s face." Dawn smiled, slipping a slice of deep dish Super Meat Macho Supreme onto a plate and fighting to break the umbilical cord of mozzarella.
"You’d think so, wouldn’t you? And yet..." Willow gestured across the table at a very long-faced Xander who seemed too preoccupied with the phone to follow the conversation at the dinner table. "No drool, no frenzied parmesan storm or hot sauce battle. Should we be worried?"
"He does seem rather lost in thought. Or is he simply too weak from lack of food to defend himself?" Giles moved around the table to aid Dawn in serving up dinner. "By now, he should have already claimed half of the pizza and disappeared into the family room to watch that strange makeover show."
"Maybe he has some new obsession with phones," Buffy suggested, amazed that Xander seemed completely oblivious that he was the topic of discussion. "You think he’s actually in there? I mean, he’s right there but it’s like he’s miles away." She looked at Giles. "Should we be checking for spells?"
"Oh, he’s in there. Watch this." Dawn gave a sly wink. "I talked to Miss Whedon today..."
Xander spun instantly around to face Dawn, eyes wide.
"And she said she was going to Slug Fest," she said casually.
"She is?" His eyes brightened.
She took a small bite of her pizza and chewed slowly before adding, "I kinda talked her into going. I said you were really sorry and that she should give you a chance to make it up to her."
"Well, I can tell she’s not really buying the jacket story but she likes you. I think you might be able to salvage this one if you stay away from Giles’ clothes. I mean really, Giles! Cursed apparel is so last season." Dawn bit into her slice again and smiled proudly.
"Xander, I’m not certain I heard Dawn correctly. At least, I hope I didn't. How exactly did you explain away your behavior that day?" Giles offered him a plate of pizza, quickly followed by the containers of his friend’s usual condiments.
"I did something I’ve never thought of doing before. I told her the truth," he answered as he started to add various goodies to his pizza.
Buffy almost choked on her mouthful of pizza as all eyes shot to him. "You what?"
"I told her the truth."
"You told her a magically cursed jacket transformed you into a thug?" Willow squeaked.
"Yep," he said nervously.
"I’m sure it was all in jest," Giles said reassuringly.
"Nope, whole truth and nothing but the truth." Xander picked fretfully at the disks of pepperoni, eyes nervously darting to each member of the family as they exchanged stunned glances.
"Are you considering telling her the rest?" Willow asked. "The whole Slayer/Watcher, vampires, monsters, magic, serious scary stuff?"
"I want to."
"What about the whole ’it cheapens it for the rest of us’ concept?" Buffy dropped her slice back to her plate and motioned wildly with her napkin, almost hitting Giles with it. He caught her hand and brought it gently back down to the table.
"And how exactly did she react, Xander?" Giles voice was calm, but from the way his hand was drifting up toward his face, it was clear that his glasses were about to be cleaned.
"Don’t worry. She doesn’t believe it," Dawn said, dismissing the matter with a wave of her hand before she continued eating.
"What’s the big deal?" Xander stared down at his pizza. "Others have been brought into the loop."
"Xander, this may sound overly formal, but just what are your intentions toward her? I know you care for her, but making her privy to such information can put her in a great deal of danger, not to mention causing everyone, including Miss Whedon, quite a bit of stress." Giles continued carefully.
Xander raised his head and spoke forcefully. "I won’t let anything happen to her. Besides, she’s tough; she can handle herself. She helped Dawn through her headaches and she can help us. She’s smart and she knows the town and first aid and..."
"Not to rain on your high-horse parade, but it’s not like any of you guys aren’t guilty of bringing a whole slew of civilians on board to the slay game," Dawn reminded them.
"But that was usually by accident or necessity. New town, change of policy. Our loop is not the place others should be," Buffy objected. "It’s a dangerous loop. We’re loop-exclusive now. No external loopage recruiting, Xander." Giles squeezed her hand gently, and she looked at him as Willow walked over to Xander.
"Wow, Xan," Willow said as she leaned in from behind to hug him. "Big step. Are you ready? Is she?"
Xander smiled at her. "I’m ready. I think it’s right for me to tell her." He shrugged and looked sad. "I don’t know if she’s ready though."
Buffy nodded slightly at Giles’ raised eyebrow and he turned back to smile at Xander. "I trust your judgment, Xander. You know the risks that come with such knowledge as well as the responsibility. If you deem this person capable and deserving, we will support you." He released Buffy’s hand and reached for his drink. "But, please, give this some serious thought. Remember the consequences."
"Buffy?" Xander looked at her hopefully. "Is it okay with you? Can I come out of the closet as a Slayerette?"
She grinned at him. "Fine, but she has to donate to the pizza fund and do fund raisers twice a year for the annual Slayer Ball."
Xander’s lips curled into a bright smile. "Cool. Now where’s the parmesan and hot sauce?"
Xander held the phone to his ear, counting the number of rings. One. Two. Three. Four. He was just about to hang up after the tenth ring, when he heard her pick up the receiver.
"Hello," Carrie said breathlessly.
Xander’s fingers tightened nervously around the phone. "Hi. It’s Xander. Is this a bad time? I can call back."
There was a long moment of silence, before she answered. "No, it’s okay. I just got back from the grocery store. Can you hold on a minute while I put away the stuff that for the fridge?"
"Sure. No problem. Take your time."
He heard her put the phone down, followed by the sounds of footsteps, rustling plastic and the opening and closing of the refrigerator door. A moment later, her voice came over the line. "Okay. I’m back."
"Uh, hi again." He cleared his throat, unsure what to say next. Finally, he decided on just stating the facts. "Dawn said you were willing to talk about going to out with me again."
"I said I’d listen to what you had to say about it," Carrie corrected.
Xander wiped his sweaty palm against his jeans. "All I want is for you to let me explain in person. I know the whole cursed jacket thing sounds like the dumbest excuse in the world. But if you’ll come tomorrow and talk to Buffy and Giles and Willow, they’ll back me up on what I’m telling you."
She sighed. "I’m not sure. The whole thing is just too…"
"Weird?" he supplied, when Carrie couldn't seem to come up with a description. "Yeah, I know it’s X-Files meets the Twilight Zone meets the Dating Game, but please give it a chance. I won’t even ask to pick you up. We can meet at the festival. There'll be plenty of people around, and if you don’t want to stay, you can walk away, and I’ll never bother you again."
"Okay." The word was little more than a whisper.
"Yes, really." Carrie’s voice was much stronger. "I’m probably out of my mind, but I’ll meet you there tomorrow morning."
"You won’t regret it," Xander promised.
"I’d better not," Carrie warned, hanging up the phone.
The hot air was thick with the scent of various unhealthy but alluring fried foods and sugarcoated treats as the Scoobies made their way towards Main Street. The street itself was closed off by large road blocks to allow for the river of people parading through the narrow halls lined with festival booths. A giant banner greeted the visitors with the words, "Slug Fest 2004. The Year of the Slug."
"I thought is was the year of the monkey." Willow looked to Giles for confirmation.
"I won’t tell them if you won’t." He smiled. "Perhaps it’s valid in other cultures?"
"I believe they’re called Oregonians," Buffy suggested, slipping her hand into his. Giles caught himself before automatically pulling away and instead, welcomed her affectionate touch with a tender glide of his finger within her palm. Buffy rewarded him with a confident wink and squeeze of his hand.
Xander and Dawn took the lead, eager to spot their respective dates for the festivities. Walking under the arching banner, the group set sail on a tide of human chaos. Out-of-towners rushed to get ahead in the bear claw line, as whining young boys tried convincing their fathers to buy them the plastic sword that was exactly-like-the-one-the-pirate-had-in-that-one-movie-that-everyone-else-already-had. Flirting teenage girls bantered on their cell phones as they drank their mondo frappachinos and giggled about the wicked cool ring tone they had just downloaded off the ’net. A group of hip hoopsters tried to seem disinterested in the festivities as they strutted their stuff through the crowd, making sure to wink at the passing phone girls as they made their way toward the outside basketball court in the park.
"There she is!" Xander rushed off into the sea of people as Willow glanced up at the pale blue sky.
"Can you believe how beautiful it is today? Must be ninety degrees or more. Thank goodness it’s dry heat."
"It is quite pleasant," Giles agreed.
"Since when do you like this kind of weather? I thought you were allergic to sun?" Buffy teased.
"With all the rain we get here, it’s a nice change of pace to have an occasional sun break."
"Judging by the ice cream booth lines, I’d say this is unusually warm," Willow suggested. "And a lot of people are carrying rain jackets or umbrellas." She looked up again at the clear sky. "Don’t know what they’re expecting."
"I think everyone’s met--," Xander interrupted as he returned. "--but just in case of temporary amnesia, this is Carrie Whedon."
"Hi. Nice to see you all again, especially under much happier circumstances," she said, looking a bit uncomfortable.
Giles smiled gently. "It's a pleasure, as always..."
"Mark!" Dawn squealed and rushed off, nearly leveling Buffy as she broke her way through Giles’ and Buffy’s joined hands.
"Enjoying the sights so far?" Carried smiled, eyes shifting between Buffy and Giles and then down to their rejoining hands.
"Oh yeah," Buffy nodded and shimmied closer to Giles, nudging him with her shoulder.
"It’s quite the event," Giles asked, trying to keep his balance. "Is it always this large?"
"Seems bigger every year. The crafts stretch down Main Street for about five blocks and the food court is set up in the ball field along with a few silly rides for the kiddies and those adults justifiably in denial. But you’ll find teeth-melters all down Andrews along with a variety of home town preserves, tourist info and local petitioners and political booths," she said, relaxing as she pointed out the festival’s layout.
"Teeth-melters. Well, we know where we’re going first then." Buffy snickered, giving Giles another nudge. "You really have this down, Carrie. You’d make an awesome tour guide."
"Sorry guys, she’s booked for the day," Xander protested teasingly. "You’ll just have to make your own fun without us."
"The sluggliness gets to you," Carrie said. "It’s silly, but fun. I'm sure you’ll find something to enjoy here."
"I don’t doubt it." Giles finally gave a nudge back, receiving a surprised look from Buffy as she recovered gracefully.
"Yo... Mr. Giles!" A hefty voice barked from the crowd, as a towering football player wearing an Oregon Ducks jersey came storming over. Buffy stepped forward defensively, until Giles smiled and offered his hand to the student.
"Hello Rodney." Giles offered his most kindly smile and Buffy stepped back, looking curious.
"So you decided to check it out. Good for you. I figured you’d be too busy grading all those papers."
"I had some help from my temporary assistant." Giles gave Willow a grateful glance and the football player noticed.
"Come on... that ain’t fair." Rodney turned to Willow and clasped his hands together in prayer position in front of his chest. "We need some down time so do me a favor and lose a few. There's no need to rush through them at all."
"You did just fine, Rodney. No need to worry," Giles said reassuringly.
Rodney dropped his hands and turned back to Giles. "Really? Cool. If you can spare some time later, me and some of the boys are meeting for drinks over at the SlamDunk’s Slug Shot Booth after the Slug Bowl charity game this afternoon. Show up and I'll make sure some free shots come your way." He made an exaggerated wink.
"Are you suggesting bribery?" Giles grinned. "Thank you for the offer, but I actually have prior obligations."
"Prior obligations?" Rodney glanced over at Buffy, down at their joined hands and a goofy grin crept along his lips. "All right. Professor G’s workin’ it!" He grinned more widely. "Next time then. See ya Monday." Turning, Rodney flashed a flirtatious smile to Willow. "Cohan... Rodney. There’s a juicy steak dinner in it for ya." He dived into the crowd and disappeared before she could respond.
"Everyone... this is Mark!" Dawn announced proudly, as she emerged from the drifting crowd with a young man in tow.
"Nice to finally meet you all." Mark outstretched his hand and everyone reached for it at once, including Dawn who quickly took the opportunity to claim the limb for herself.
She quickly ran down the list of her party of festival guests, pointing to each in turn. "That’s Willow, Xander, Carrie, Giles and Buffy. She’s my sister."
"But don’t hold that against her," Xander teased.
"I won’t. It’s a definite checkmark in the plus column." He smiled. "Dawn says it’s your first time here at Slug Fest?"
"Yep, longtime festers, first time sluggers." Buffy nodded and then frowned. "Or maybe it’s the other way around?"
"But we’re all very eager to learn," Giles added quickly. "We’ve received some thoughtful directions from Miss Whedon. Do you have any suggestions of your own for not-to-be-missed attractions?"
"City Hall has a historical tour, and there’s the narrated hayride through town square," Mark suggested enthusiastically. "Slug farm down by the barn is always a fan fave. Not the slugs themselves, of course, but the town they build to display them is usually pretty cool. It’s a model version of Whispering Pines — very accurate. They also have an exhibit of oddly shaped fruits and vegetables."
"Sorry to interrupt," Willow said. "But I’m working today and I need to get going…the Coven’s slug soup is waiting for me. Nice to meet you, Mark. Have fun everyone." With a wave, she was gone.
"And we’re outta here too!" Dawn started to pull Mark away.
"Nice to meet...," Mark's good-bye was cut off.
"Dawn, you got your special equipment?" Buffy asked, receiving a puzzled look from Mark and searing glare from Dawn.
"Yes," she growled.
"Be careful after dusk." Buffy looked like she was about to say more, but instead, she pursed her lips and gave her sister a sharp nod.
Dawn smiled in relief and hurried off with Mark in tow. "Good luck, Xander," she yelled in parting.
"Come on. Let’s get out of here before someone says something I’ll regret," Xander pointed to where Dawn was disappearing, "like that." Carrie smiled and shook her head at him. They began to walk away but Xander paused and turned back to Buffy and Giles. "And guys, would you try to behave yourselves. This is a public place and there are ladies and children present!" He grinned and gestured dramatically at Carrie. "After you, my lady. Your slugs await." They disappeared into the crowd together.
Buffy and Giles stood quiet for a moment as the crowd surged around them.
Finally Buffy looked up at Giles and grinned. "So, I guess that's it for family time. It’s just you and me now, big boy." She wiggled her eyebrows dramatically. "Where do we go from here?"
Willow looked proudly at her sign hanging above the Coven booth.
"Hey Willow!" Lessa called out as she exited a little tent behind the booth.
"It’s all looking great. Very spiffy if I do say so myself," Willow said with a grin.
"Isn’t it?! Come here and I’ll show you everything you need to know."
Willow walked around the wooden booth. Under the counter she could see various glasses and bags in all kinds of natural colors.
"This is the temporary storage. We move it from here to the counter, so there’s always at least one of each item on display. We have the book, Coven Cookery at the end, and then jams go here, herbs over there, then we’ve got…"
"The soup to take home. The labels are kind of helpful, if you can read," Willow interrupted with a grin.
"Well, it sure didn’t keep people last year from asking ’What’s this?’ and ’Are those herbs in this bag?’ ’Eh, no ma’am, they just look like herbs and we label them like that to confuse you’," Lessa explained, complete with funny voices.
Snickering, Willow said, "You better watch out. If Deborah hears you she’ll…"
"They’re all back in the tent, so we’re safe for now. Speaking of the tent, that’s where you can get more stock to fill up the temporary storage here."
"And finally here’s the soup, bowls and spoons. You need to stir every now and then but generally it shouldn't be a problem," she said, pulling out a small stack of bowls.
Willow nodded. "Guess we’re all set then."
Lessa put the bowls down on the counter and looked around. She frowned slightly and nodded down the street. "See that guy over there? He’s been looking at the booth all morning. I bet he’s just waiting for the soup to be served."
A man with a long scraggly beard quickly looked away when Willow turned to look at him.
"Or maybe he's got a crush on you?" Willow teased.
Willow laughed. "I’m guessing that a secret admirer is not your thing?"
"Not like this, that’s for sure."
"Oh, look here." Willow pointed out a note tacked to the booth. "Maybe he left a love letter for you.
"My dearest Lessa," Willow said breathily taking the note and holding it to her heart. "You are the sunshine of my life, the air I’m breathing," she continued as she opened the note and held it up high in front of her, "the cushion that..." Willow suddenly stopped, her face frozen.
"What’s up? Is it really a love letter?" Lessa asked.
"Not really," Willow said weakly turning the note around so Lessa could read it.
The big red letters said, "WITCHES GO TO HELL!"