"How’s this?" Willow asked, carefully placing the final bag of soup mix on top of her pyramid of soup mix bags.
"Perfect." Jo smiled, pleased. "Perhaps you’ve missed your true calling and should be studying architecture?"
Willow cocked her head, looking thoughtfully at the arrangement. "It’s not one of the eight wonders of the world, but it’s not bad for soup mix."
"If you two would spend a little less time dallying, we'd be open for business already," Deborah grumbled, mixing her cauldron of freshly prepared soup.
"We’ll be ready soon enough, Deb," Elspeth assured her. "Besides, have we ever failed to raise a generous profit from this?"
"True, but at the expense of our self respect, I fear. Our approach has been rather... frivolous. I would prefer a more subtle, tasteful representation."
"Tip jar!" Willow announced. "We need a tip jar. Something that captures the whole spirit of the event but that won’t gross anyone out."
"How about a flower pot, one of the terracotta ones that Pershing’s sells?" Sarah suggested.
"I can scribble up a sign for it," Katrina offered, reaching into her back pack for her sketchpad and set of inking pens.
"Good idea. I’ll duck out and swing by their booth now before the crowd hits." Lessa tossed her bag over her shoulder and slipped through the draped canvas backing of the booth.
"Wonderful teamwork, everyone. We’re on our way. See, Deborah, this will be the best year yet," Elspeth said proudly.
"Who’s it gonna be this year, Johnny? The witches?" The young teenager pointed down toward the Coven booth.
"Clear shots from this trajectory, unobstructed escape route and easy marks." Johnny nodded, examining their well-scouted location from a nearby hillside overlooking the festival. "It’s a go."
"You've been playing that soldier game too much. But it looks good to me, too." Marcy smiled.
"Those bags are our prime targets," Wilson noted. "But I bet we could even peg the old woman on the ass and they’d never know it was us."
Johnny lifted his sling shot and took aim. "Watch this!"
Willow turned at the subtle poof sound and saw a small cloud of powder rise from a soup bag on the counter.
"Can dried soup explode?" she asked, cautiously examining the wounded package.
"Not that I know," Jo said. "Why?"
"One of the bags just went poof."
"That’s odd. There’s a broom and pail just beyond the canvas. If you’ll get it for me, I’ll get this mess cleaned up." Jo motioned to the back of the booth and Willow hurried off.
"That was lame. Didn’t do nothin’!" Marcy said sourly.
"At least he hit his mark."
"But it just leaked a little."
"Wait for it!" Johnny took aim again.
Jo carefully lifted the damaged bag away from the rest, cupping the leaking powder as it trickled from the hole. "I wonder what caused this?"
"Ow!" Deborah exclaimed as a pellet stung her backside. She swung around, flailing the oversized ladle with her, unintentionally batting the damaged soup bag from Jo’s hand. It ruptured, blanketing the booth and the remaining Coven members with a spicy grey smog. They froze in place, stunned by the mess caking the booth and themselves as the dehydrated ingredients rained down around them.
"Here’s the broom and..." Willow stopped as she dipped her head through the seam of the canvas to see the powder coated coven. After a moment, she started to giggle. Jo shot her an irritated glare but then her face softened, melting into a smile and soon laughter. Elspeth was the next to fall, chuckling as Sarah and Katrina joined in. Deborah stood firm, permitting herself only a rueful shake of her head. As Willow handed off the broom and pail, she could have sworn she heard the faint sound of hysterical laughter echoing along the hot draft.
"I think we need a bigger boat," Willow teased.
Jo smiled at the joke and nodded while the others looked confused.
"Never mind," said Willow.
Jo shrugged slightly. "Willow, there should be some bottled water, paper towels and garbage bags in my bag. Would you mind?"
"No problem. Pick up the pace, ladies. No need for all this sluggish behavior," Willow teased and disappeared back behind the curtain.
"It just wouldn’t be Slug Fest unless someone said that every year," Sarah sighed, trying to brush off the powder from her shirt.
"Sorry, my first Slug Fest," Willow hollered as she searched for the supplies in Jo’s bag. She sighed regretfully and mumbled to herself. "I would do a spell that would clean it all up, but since I’m still No Magic Girl for now, it’s no abracadabra for me…
The coven members laughed and continued to brush at each other. No one noticed the small cracking of energies that traveled over the blanket of powder, evaporating into nothing as it met each powder-coated victim.
The arid landscape warped before her, evidence of the heat radiating from the ground, but Buffy ignored it to remain focused on her opponent. She could see determination in her foe’s eyes as he sent the staff around for another swipe. She dodged to her left, barely managing to keep her balance as the weapon crossed mere inches from her swaying hip. She blocked the strike, planted her feet firmly and then countered with a wide sweeping blow across his path. Her staff skirted across his broad chest, as he managed to dart out of the way to avoid a solid hit.
Of all the opponents she'd ever had to face, he was the most dangerous. He knew her every move, her every thought.
Buffy saw her opening, as he shifted his weight on the narrow plank of wood they balanced on for this contest. His foot slipped precariously on the edge, and she made her move, spinning the staff above her head with a well-practiced flourish that sent the giant padded slug swiftly against his backside. At the impact, his legs faltered and he plunged down into the watery depths below. The move and subsequent splash triggered enthusiastic praise from the crowd.
"Ladies and gentleman, your winner and SluggerFest champion, Buffy Summers." The voice barked over the loudspeaker, almost drowned out by the enthusiastic applause.
She stood victoriously, glancing down into the water filled tub below and watched with a muffled giggle as Giles got to his feet, soaked from head to toe.
"There seems to be a trend here." He smiled sheepishly, his damp curls dripping as he waded to the edge of the pool.
"It was your idea," Buffy shrugged innocently, hopping down beside the tub’s wall. "Told you I wasn’t going easy on you. These are new jeans and I don’t wanna get them wet."
"Luckily for me this hot day will dry me out in no time." He said good-humoredly, reaching up to be helped out with a firm tug by his Slayer. "And lucky for you as well." He pulled her in close, wrapping his sopping wet arms around her, instantly soaking through her thin tank top and ignoring her outraged sputter.
"Congratulations, Miss Summers." The announcer approached, handed her a slug shaped trophy and collected the padded slug staffs as the crowd started to disperse. "Your father must be very proud."
Giles dropped his hands instantly and stepped back. Buffy started to protest, but the announcer had already walked away. She looked at Giles helplessly.
He sighed, his discomfort and embarrassment clear. "Come on, let’s see what else the fair has to offer," he said turning and walking away.
She stared at him for a minute before running after him and pulling him around. She stared seriously at him. "It's just stupid, narrow-minded people making stupid, narrow-minded assumptions. You’re not my father, Giles, and we’re both going to have to get used to others getting it wrong at first." She reached up and touched his cheek. "But that’s okay, because I don’t mind setting them straight." She pulled his head down and kissed him hard. There was only a brief hesitation before he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her against his wet clothes. They stayed that way for a long moment, before Giles slowly pulled back with a final soft kiss.
He smiled contentedly down at her. "If that’s going to happen every time someone misunderstands our relationship, I don’t think I’ll mind at all."
Carrie stopped and stared, the mustard-covered Slugdog halfway to her mouth. Slowly, she lowered it back to the napkin she was using as a plate on the picnic table. She brushed deliberately at the area around the napkin, clearing away imaginary dust and dirt. Squeals of laughter echoed around her as children ran past, chasing each other with stuffed grey slugs. Finally she lifted her gaze back to Xander, who watched her anxiously.
"You can’t possibly think I’ll believe that?" she demanded, her voice rising as she spoke. Taking a deep breath, she brought it under control and tried again. "That has to be the most impossibly insane story I’ve ever heard."
"Yeah, well, I can understand how you’d think that," Xander replied. Looking nervous, he took a bite of his burger. "But, really, it’s all true." His words were muffled as he chewed.
Frowning, Carrie picked up her hotdog and took a bite. They were silent for a moment, each lost in their own thoughts. He shot quick glances at her face, trying to get an idea of what she was thinking, but her face was carefully blank as she ate her food.
"Okay, so let me get this straight…" she said suddenly, crumpling up her napkin and standing. Shoving the last of his food into his mouth, Xander leapt to his feet and followed her as she walked to a garbage can and threw out the remnants of her meal. "The town you came from…" She turned to look at Xander, her gaze questioning.
"Sunnydale," he supplied eagerly.
Carrie nodded. "The town you came from, Sunnydale, was actually on top of an entrance to Hell."
"Yeah." Xander fell into step beside her. "It was a happening place to live."
"When you were sixteen," Carrie continued, as if he hadn’t spoken. "Buffy, who is not, in fact, a mild mannered nursery worker, but something called a ’vampire slayer,’ moved to town." Her voice was light as she spoke, as if she were discussing the weather with him.
He opened his mouth to speak, but she held up her hand to stop him. "You, Buffy, Willow and Giles fought vampires, demons and God only knows what else for eight years until last May, when averting what you call, ‘the annual apocalypse,’ you destroyed the city, turning it into a sinkhole and permanently sealing the door to Hell."
"Exactly!" Xander said exuberantly, dancing in front of her. "Although, it’s not the only Hellmouth. According to Giles there’s another one in Cleveland. Robin and Faith are there now watching it."
"Of course! Where else would it be, but Cleveland." Carrie asked sarcastically. She watched Xander critically as he scampered before her, his face pleading for understanding and acceptance.
"You believe me, right?" he asked.
Sighing, she reached out and took his hand in hers. "You’re really serious about this?" She looked from their entwined fingers to his face, studying it intently.
Xander nodded. "I swear, every word of it is the truth. I mean, how moronic would I have to be to tell you a story like that if it weren’t true?"
Carrie couldn’t help but laugh. "I think we’ll leave that particular question unanswered for now, but even if it isn't true, you get points for creativity." Smiling, she leaned forward and kissed his cheek. "Someday we’re going to have a serious talk about this." Her voice was solemn as she spoke.
Resigned, Xander nodded. "Okay, but the story’s not going to change," he assured her. Shrugging, he pulled her toward the food booths. "Are you still hungry? The Slugcakes smell amazing."
Nodding her head, Carrie groaned. "Oh! Those are so good, I could eat a dozen of them." She sniffed at the air, the sweet aroma filling her nostrils.
Xander grinned. "Let’s see if you can."
"Thank you for buying our spectacularly savory slug soup," Willow said with a big smile. She waved cheerfully as the customers left with their purchases and then assessed the display for items that needed restocking. "Hmm, we’ll need some more soon."
"Here you are," Jo said, her hands filled with soup packets and a few other things for the temporary storage.
Willow went to take some from her. "Wow, can you read minds too?"
Jo snorted. "I wish."
Willow looked up from where she was shelving the soup packets. She stood up and after a quick look at the empty counter and booth area, went over to Jo. "How are you?"
"It’s Slug Fest. I believe we’re all legally bound to feel sluggishly good. Or was that just sluggish?" she asked without much humor in her voice.
Willow ignored the quip. "I wanted to tell you I’m sorry about what happened between you and Giles. I mean, it’s not that I don’t want him to be with Buffy, but I…" She suddenly stopped herself paling. "Oh god, you probably don’t even know…"
"It’s okay, Willow. I know," she said with a grimace.
"Elspeth talked to me after I returned. She didn’t come right out and say it, but… there wasn’t much reading between the lines left to do. Not that I was surprised."
"I’m sorry. And what I wanted to say was that even though I’m happy for Buffy and Giles, that doesn’t mean that I’m not sad about what happened to you. I want you to know that I’m still your friend, whether you’re Giles’ girlfriend or not. I could even go 'Grr, evil Giles' if you need someone to talk to."
Jo laughed and this time it sounded genuine. "I don’t think that will be necessary, but thank you for the offer." Then she added in more seriously. "It’s appreciated."
"Do you need to talk?"
"I don’t think it would change anything. Besides, I get a little bitter when I think too much about it and I hate feeling like that. I don’t hate Rupert. I couldn’t." She shook her head. "Things could have gone differently if only he'd opened his eyes sooner. But I want him to be happy, I honestly do. And I could see where his true feelings were." She took a deep breath before continuing. "But I can’t pretend that imagining him in her… in Buffy’s arms is something that doesn’t raise my blood pressure."
"I don’t think anyone is asking you to pretend to be happy about it," Willow said carefully.
"No, they’re not. It's just that everyone feels so sorry. All I’m waiting for now is for Buffy to come and tell me how sorry she is that she’s with the man I…" Jo stopped herself and took a deep breath. "Not feeling bitter. Not at all."
Willow suddenly hugged her and Jo hesitated only a moment before returning the hug. After a moment she stiffened again and Willow pulled back.
"All good now," Jo said, almost smiling.
"It doesn’t have to be now. Just hang in there and it will get better with time. That’s a lesson I finally learned."
Lessa ran the tips of her fingers over the thick leaves of a green plant. She wasn’t pleased when a layer of dust came off onto her hands. Heaving a sigh, she lifted the pot carefully, bringing it eye level so that she could see the stems.
"I wouldn’t buy that one," a voice said from behind. Startled, Lessa bobbled the plant, almost sending it crashing to the ground. Managing to get a grip on the pot at the last minute, she set it down carefully before turning to face the speaker, a rather attractive young man about her age, smiling at her sheepishly. "Sorry," he said. "I didn’t mean to frighten you. I just noticed that the leaves were beginning to turn brown and it’ll most likely die in the next couple of days."
She looked more closely at the wilting edges. "I was worried about it. I just hate to see a plant abused," she said sadly. Turning back to the stranger, she smiled brightly. "Thank you." She held out her hand. "I’m Lessa."
He took her hand, shaking it firmly. "Brad," he told her. "I work at Pershing Daisies." Brad gestured at a booth across the fairway. "I can promise that none of our plants are on their deathbeds there."
"Oh, I was just headed over that way. But really, I’m not even supposed to be looking at plants," she admitted, laughing as they started toward the Pershing Daisies booth. "I’m supposed to be looking at pots for a tip jar for our booth." She paused to look at a booth filled with slug shaped ceramic cookie jars. Her fingers danced over a slug with a whimsical witch’s hat.
"Oh, do you have a booth too?" Brad asked in interest.
Lessa nodded. "I’m over at the Slug Soup booth." She examined a plain slug jar, but her gaze returned to the witch slug.
Brad’s eyes closed in delight. "Mmmm. I absolutely love that soup."
"You should come over later," she invited. Leaning over, she whispered loudly. "I’ll slip you a bowl, free, just for saving me from buying a dying plant." She turned to the man behind the counter. "I’ll take that one." she said, pointing at the witch slug. She turned back to Brad as the jar was being wrapped. "Really, come by."
Grinning, Brad nodded. "I’ll do that," he promised as she paid for her ceramic jar.
Tucking the change into her pocket, she took the bag containing her jar from the counter. "I should get back to my booth," Lessa said shyly, glancing down at the ground.
He nodded and gestured over his shoulder. "Yeah, me too."
Brad and Lessa turned at the sound of her name. Lessa’s face brightened as Buffy, hand in hand with a damp Giles, hurried toward them.
"Buffy, Giles! How are you?" she asked, stepping forward.
Buffy grinned. "Oh, great. How come you’re not at the booth?"
Lessa lifted the bag containing the newly purchased tip jar. "I was sent on an important mission," she said, giggling.
"Hi Buffy," Brad said from behind Lessa. His gaze dropped to where her hand was joined with Giles’. "Mr. Giles."
Buffy’s happy face faltered a bit, but her smile remained. Her grip tightened slightly. "Hi Brad. How are you?" she asked softly as Giles gave a nod of greeting.
Brad shrugged casually. "I’m fine. You look happy," he said sincerely.
Buffy’s smile became dazzling. "I am, Brad, thank you."
Brad nodded before turning to Lessa. "I’ll stop by later," he said before heading back to his booth.
She gave a wave as he left. "I should probably head back myself," she told Buffy and Giles as she turned and walked down the fairway.
"Boy, we sure know how to clear a room," Buffy muttered as she watched them go.
Giles shook his head sadly. "It’s going to be difficult for everyone involved for a little while," he murmured. "But it’ll eventually be alright."
"You’re right." Taking a deep breath, Buffy pulled away. "Now, let’s get some cotton candy."
Willow finished pouring another serving of soup and handed it and the change over to the older couple. "I know you’ll enjoy this. Even in this hot weather, it seems to energize people." She laughed. "The effect is the opposite of its name."
The woman smiled. "I know it’s a treat, dear. You ladies always have the finest things. I’ll be back for some jam at the end of the day."
"Hi, Mrs. Charter, Mr. Charter!" Lessa came up behind them and pulled out her jar. "Look at what I found."
"Oh that’s lovely, Lessa, just lovely." Mrs. Charter smiled. "Whatever is it for?"
"It’s a tip jar." She put it on the counter top and spoke in a dramatic undertone. "Did Willow do a good job?"
"She did indeed," said Mr. Charter laughing. "Here, Lessa, let me inaugurate your jar with a modest gratuity." He put a dollar bill in. "Now come on, honey, we have to go."
"Thanks!" called out Willow and Lessa together.
Katrina walked over and grinned at the witch slug. "Lessa, that’s great, well done!"
"Yeah," said Willow, "it’s really cute. Where’s Jo? She needs a laugh." She looked around the booth, but didn’t see the witch. With a shrug, she turned back to stirring the soup.
Dawn examined the slug-shaped cotton candy Mark handed her and took a bite, nipping off both eye stems and a large portion of its head. "This is really good."
Mark nodded, grabbing a yellow gummy slug and popping it into his mouth. "You’ve gotta try these too."
Dawn looked doubtful. "I don’t know. There’s just something really wrong about yellow slugs."
"But grey cotton candy is okay?" he asked, pointing to the cotton candy.
"I didn’t say it was logical," Dawn said around another mouthful of spun sugar slug. "Anyway, who ever heard of a yellow slug?"
"Banana slugs are the second largest in the world and grow anywhere from 8 to 18 inches. They got the name banana slug ’cause a lot of them have bright yellow bodies with black spots."
"You sure know a lot about slugs," Dawn said admiringly.
Mark shrugged and looked down at the ground. "Yeah, I know. It’s totally geeky, isn’t it?"
Dawn shook her head. "I think it’s cute. Talk slug to me!"
"Okay." He took a deep breath. "Slugs are hermaphrodites…"
Dawn giggled. "So the boy slugs aren’t out there sliding around trying to put the moves on girl slugs?"
Mark turned red and promptly avoided the question. "They can stretch to twenty times their normal length so they can squeeze through tiny openings to get at food. They can even follow slime trails they left from the night before and sometimes other slugs pick up on the same trail and create a whole highway leading to the food."
"Sort of like a slug smorgasbord." Dawn reached over and helped herself to a gummy slug and offered Mark a bite of cotton candy.
He chewed and swallowed. "There are over forty species of slugs in the United States. The most widespread are grey field slugs, black slugs and the common garden slug."
"Are they the ones I see under rocks and stuff?" Dawn asked.
"Probably," Mark confirmed. "One of the coolest things about slugs is the way they move. It you looked at it from underneath, you could see horizontal waves of muscle move from the back to the front, allowing it to glide along. A slug can even crawl over a sharp edge of glass without cutting itself because of the slime."
"Slime! That reminds me. I saw a slime slide a few minutes ago." Dawn finished the last of the cotton candy and threw the paper cone into a trash can. "I think it’s just Jello, but it sure looked like fun and it might cool us off. You want to try it?"
"Sure. The slimier the better."
"This simply won’t do." The stern feminine voice caught Willow by surprise and she glanced up nervously toward the couple standing near the money box. She smiled as she recognized them, greeting her new friends from the coffee house, Becka and Jack, with a welcoming wave. "Did you learn nothing from us? Where’s your tip jar?"
"We don’t have one." Willow shuffled through the busy group of Coven ladies to reach her friends. "In keeping with the day, we have a tip slug." She motioned to the witch slug at edge of the booth counter.
"Look’s like you’re making yourself at home, showing off your newfound hometown spirit here at the slug soup stand." Jack flashed a teasing grin. "You make it yourself?"
"I helped. Well... more like supervised as others directed me to get out of the way. Hi, Michelle!" Willow waved to one of her co-workers at another booth. The young Asian woman smiled back and sent an additional friendly wave to the two coffee makers.
"I don’t see any complex machinery or plumbing, so you should do alright." Jack took a swig of his water bottle and offered a drink to Becka who accepted eagerly.
"I really am sorry about that. Did I break it? I can pay for the damage..."
"Old Smokey’s just fine. He misses you, in fact. Said you have a gentle touch when you manage to turn the right knobs." Becka handed the water bottle back to Jack, who quickly finished off what little was left.
"I’m sure Witchy Woman knows just the right knobs to turn. Maybe sometime you can demonstrate your expertise in the field, if you’re not too busy boiling slugs." Jack wriggled his eyebrows suggestively.
"There are no real slugs in the soup. I wouldn’t dream of hurting a slug," Willow said with mock offense. She frowned at their red faces. "You guys seem to be dressed rather warmly today. Be careful you don’t get heat stroke."
"Traditionally, this time of the year is still a bit nippy or at least really wet. But my nips are roasting in this heat wave." Jack grabbed the front of his raincoat and gave it a brisk shake to move the hot air away. "Guess we should have listened to the weather forecast, but whenever have they actually been right?" He unzipped his jacket and tied it around his waist.
Willow’s attention was caught by the bearded man who was back again, lurking across the road. He was staring angrily at them and seemed to be mumbling to himself.
"You guys have any idea who that is?" Willow asked, motioning subtly toward the handcrafted candles booth.
"That’s Old Man Finch," Becka explained.
"Or as we like to call him, Old Fart Grinch." Jack finished. "Doesn’t like anybody in this town and nobody likes him. It’s a perfectly balanced equation that’s worked well over the years. But someday, I figure he’ll drive his Grinchmobile through the town hall in a fit of rage or insanity...or both."
"He seems to have some hang-up with the Coven. Should I be worried?"
"Considering he’s about seven hundred and forty two," Jack winked, "I think you’ll be fine."
"If he looks like he’s about to attack, just threaten him with an aura cleansing or a tarot reading and he’ll get this panicked expression in his beady little bug eyes and hobble off to his shack," Becka said with a snicker.
Willow noticed that the odd man’s eyes never left the Coven booth the entire time, as if he were waiting for something. She shivered slightly, despite the heat.
"Hey, if you get a break later, swing on by. We’re both working in the afternoon at the Cafe Caffeine booth over by the dried slug museum." Jack pointed down the street.
Startled, Willow said, "There’s a dried slug museum?"
"Yep. And if you catch it at just the right time, you’ll get the treat of seeing the official Slug Fest improv troop performing Hamlet on the steps," Becka suggested.
"The entire production is performed in slug costumes. It’s one of the most disturbing sights you will ever witness." Jack feigned horror. "What’d ya say?"
"I’m not sure when I’ll be free, but when I am, it’s a date." Willow nodded resolutely. "Want some slug soup?"
"Not if my life depended on it," Jack laughed.
"I’ve already had slug tacos, a slug slushy, and a Slugdog," Becka said, rubbing her stomach. "I think I better wait or I’ll be gifting your tip slug with a very unpleasant gratuity."
They headed off with a cheery joint farewell, "Catch you later, Red!" Willow tried to get back to her slug soup duties, but she could feel cold eyes watching her every move. She debated confronting the old man after she finished setting up the new bowls.
"Elspeth, I think we might need these..." She paused when she noticed Elspeth was nowhere to be seen. "Lessa," she called out. "Where’s Elspeth?"
"It’s really good. Sure you don’t want some?" Buffy licked her fingers as she held the candy toward him. Giles shook his head, watching in dismay as she pulled yet another hunk of the grey cotton candy from the rest and popped it into her mouth.
"I simply can’t understand how you can eat anything that comes in such a horrid color." He shook his head in disgust as she pulled another bite off with her teeth.
"You’re going to starve today if you’re a snob about the color of your food," she told him, her voice teasing.
Giles gave her a wide smile. "Yes, everything does seem to have either a grey tinge to or a color not normally found in nature," he said, nodding at some brightly colored candies.
Buffy’s face lit up as she followed his gaze. "Oh, those look good," she said eagerly. Grabbing him with a sticky hand, she dragged him over to the candy booth. He couldn’t help but smile at her child-like glee at the brightly colored confections before her. She began to point out her selections to the young girl behind the counter.
"Dear Lord, you’re going to make yourself sick," he said in mock admonishment as her selections grew to alarming proportions.
Buffy waved away his concern. "I’ll be fine," she assured him. He raised an eyebrow at her as he stepped forward to pay the cashier. Buffy continued to munch away on her cotton candy as he handed her the paper bag containing her candy.
"I really do believe we’ll be testing the boundaries of the Slayer constitution," he teased. She slid him a look, but said nothing, opening up the bag of candy. Quick as a snake, Giles plunged his hand into the bag and snatched a bright pink gummy slug.
"Hey!" Buffy said indignantly. Shrugging, he gave her an innocent smile as he popped the candy into his mouth. "You won’t eat grey cotton candy, but fluorescent gummy slugs are okay?"
"As you said, I’m going to starve to death, if I choose to be picky about my food." With that, Giles reached out again and stole another piece from the bag. With both of her hands full, there was nothing Buffy could do to stop him.
"Don't be shy, now. Just help yourself, Giles," she said sarcastically.
He grinned at her. "I believe I will." Leaning forward, he pressed his lips against hers in a swift kiss. He could taste the sugary sweetness of the cotton candy on her lips. He pulled away, leaving Buffy staring at him in surprise. He took the opportunity to reached toward the grey confection in her hand. "Mmmm. You know, maybe I'll have some of that cotton candy, after all."
"Lessa, you know that guy who was here earlier? He’s back."
Lessa looked up. "Please tell me you're joking, Willow. He’s creepy."
"Jack said his name is Finch, and that he sorta hates, well, everyone, so I guess we can’t take it personally." Willow reorganized the jam jars on the counter.
"I think I've heard that name before. Maybe Katrina knows something about him, if he has a particular grudge with the Coven or something." Lessa looked around. "By the way, Willow, where is everyone?"
Willow turned away from Finch to look around the booth. "I don’t know. Katrina and Sarah were here a minute ago. Have you seen Jo or the others recently?"
Lessa shook her head frowning. Willow turned to check on Finch again, but he was gone.
"What next?" Xander asked. "I saw Dawn and Mark at the Slime Slide. That looked like fun."
Carrie shuddered. "A little too gooey for me."
"What about that?" Xander asked, laughing and pointing.
Carrie turned around and saw a photo booth set up with two human-sized cardboard cutouts of slugs dressed in swimsuits. An opening at the "face" allowed the person standing behind the cutout to look through. She turned to Xander and grinned. "Race you!"
Twenty minutes later, they walked away with Carrie still giggling over a photo of slug-Xander wearing a bikini. "I think I’ll put this on the bulletin board in my office."
He looked at the photo and grinned. "I’m not sure pink is my color. I’ve always considered myself an autumn."
Carrie grinned back before her expression turned serious. "I’m glad I came today. I’m having a good time."
"Me, too," Xander agreed. "Hey, how about some lunch? We can go over to the Coven tent and have some of their magically delicious slug soup."
"Sounds like a plan. Lead on, McSlug!"
Giles sat on the ground, his back against a tree. Buffy was beside him, leaning against his shoulder and sipping a lemonade. The bright red, slug-shaped, helium filled balloon tied to her wrist bobbed up and down, as she raised and lowered her drink. "What do you want to do next; take a ride on the Slug-go-round or head over to the main arena and watch the slug races?"
Giles put his arm around her. "I’d like to suggest that you consider a third option. One that doesn’t involve immediately moving from this comfortable spot."
She cuddled closer. "Sounds like a plan to me."
"Here we are, time to meet the cool witches."
Carrie didn't bother to hide her skepticism. "Real witches?"
"Real witches and real cool, though not literally cool, just literally witches."
It took her a moment to work her way through his answer. "So figuratively cool literal witches?"
"Got it in one!"
They stepped to the booth where Lessa and Willow were talking animatedly.
"Hey, Will, what’s cooking? I hope it’s not slugs."
Willow turned to him, not even noticing Carrie. "Have you seen Jo? Or Elspeth or Deborah or anyone from the Coven?"
"Uh… I see Lessa," he said pointing at their friend.
"This is no laughing matter," said Lessa seriously before breaking into a goofy grin. She turned to Carrie and stuck out her hand. "Hi, you’re Carrie, right? Xander’s girlfriend? The one he can’t stop talking about?"
Xander risked a quick glance at Carrie, who looked back at him with barely contained amusement before answering, "I guess it depends, does he say good things about me?"
Lessa laughed. "Do you really walk on water?"
Xander ducked his head and groaned. Carrie smiled and said, "Well if he thinks that way then yes, on a trial basis for now, I guess I'm that Carrie. You must be Lessa."
"The one and only."
They shook hands and Willow apologized to Carrie for her distraction.
"No need to be sorry, if there is some trouble. Can I help?"
"We don’t really know what it is. The others are just… gone."
"Have you looked around the fair?" Xander asked.
"We’re supposed to stay here to sell and serve the soup, but I have a really bad feeling about this," Willow said, her brow creasing with worry.
Lessa turned and headed back toward the tent behind the booth. "Hey, it won’t be like we’re being irresponsible. This just isn’t normal. Either something bad has happened or they’re having a party back there without us, in which case I won’t feel bad for not being the shop monkey any longer."
Willow handed her spoon to Xander. "Stir, I’ll be right back."
Xander shrugged and obediently began to stir the soup. Carrie began studying the jams and other items for sale.
Just after Willow disappeared into the tent, they heard a strangled cry, "Xander! Help!"
Running into the tent, they crashed into Willow and Lessa who stood frozen in shock. Xander pulled Carrie past them. He stepped on something sticky, and was starting to step away, when Carrie screamed.
He looked up and followed the girls’ gaze. On the ground and tables of the tent, several giant slugs slid around, thicker than a leg and none shorter than three feet.