"C’mon, mister, win a slug for the little lady. Two tries for a dollar. Break all twenty balloons without missing one and you win Great-granddaddy Slug." The game attendant pointed to an enormous plush slug with gleaming silver fur.
Giles glanced around at the on-looker's smiling faces in the crowd behind them, and then looked at Buffy. Without speaking, he reached for his wallet and handed the man ten dollars. When the attendant handed over a bucket of darts, he passed it to Buffy. "You heard the man."
Buffy looked down at the darts. "Huh? You want me to do it?"
Giles leaned closer and lowered his voice to a whisper. "A very lovely lady once told me that there was no need to prove my… uh… machoness. My ego and I will certainly survive allowing the one with the superior dart-throwing skills to win."
Buffy shivered as his breath brushed across her ear. She turned her head until she could meet his gaze and smiled. "Is that Giles-speak for you like me just the way I am and that I shouldn’t pretend to be anything other than what I really am the way I did with every other relationship in my past?"
Giles smiled smugly and nodded. "And aren’t I a clever fellow for making all of that clear in just two sentences?"
Buffy laughed softly, lifting her head to kiss his jaw line and then whispered softly in his ear. "You know that after I win that thing I’m going to insist that we keep it on our bed."
"Our bed?" Giles arched his eyebrow, his lips twitching in amusement.
She gave him a very direct look. "I told you, I’ve given this a lot of thought."
Giles nodded solemnly. "In that case, the creature may have possession during the day. But at night…" He stopped speaking and allowed his expression to convey the remainder of his thoughts.
Buffy swallowed hard, then turned resolutely and reached for the first dart.
Five minutes later, they walked away from a stunned and somewhat irked game attendant, with Giles smiling smugly and Buffy cuddling the giant slug.
"Hey Marcy! Come on, there’s a TV crew over there. We can get on TV!"
"Over there, come on. Johnny will be so pissed that he missed it!"
"Oh my god!" Carrie gasped. Xander stepped forward protectively, putting himself between Carrie and the giant slugs.
"Did these monster slugs eat the Coven?" Xander asked.
"Eat the Coven?" Carrie frowned. "What are you talking about?"
"We don’t know." Willow’s eyes darted to an upset Carrie and back to the slugs. "I think that’s Jo’s shirt there near the brown slug, but I don’t see any tooth marks on it."
"Turnabout’s fair play, right? Maybe we’re talking about the Slug Soup Revenge." Xander looked to Lessa. "What happened? Where’d they come from?"
"I don’t know," she said anxiously. "I don’t even know if they’re real or mystical."
"We just found them," Willow explained. "But I’m leaning towards mystical or magical or Hellmouthy origins, except of course, this isn’t a Hellmouth."
"If the Hellmouth had slugs, they’d probably have bigger teeth."
Carrie continued to stare at the slugs. "Those are the largest slugs I have ever seen! Should we call an exterminator or something?"
"Are they dangerous or violent?" Xander asked.
"They don’t seem to be. They’ve just been laying there."
"You think these giant slugs might have scared off your witch friends, Xander?" Carrie suggested. "Can’t say I blame them..."
"Should we call Buffy and Giles?"
"I don’t understand. Why would you call Buffy and Mr. Giles? Are they pest experts?"
"We’re not bothering them. This is their first real outing together," Xander said resolutely.
Carrie’s frustration grew. "Isn’t anyone else completely freaking out over these monster slugs?"
Xander shrugged. "We need to get rid of them before they’re found. What gets rid of giganto slugs?"
"We’ll need help. Call Dawn," Willow suggested.
Dawn felt her cell phone begin to vibrate. She put down her Slugdog, wiped the mustard and relish off her fingers and plucked it out of her pocket. She glanced at the number displayed and then looked across the picnic table at Mark. "It’s Willow. Probably wants to check and make sure I remembered to eat something for lunch."
Mark surveyed the array of crumpled wrappers, containers and empty bottles littering the table. "I think we ate everything for lunch."
Dawn punched the on button. "Hi, Willow." She listened for a moment. "What?! How?" She stopped and listened again. "Okay. Yeah, I know. No! Don’t tell Buffy and Giles." She glanced and Mark. "I’ll be there in just a minute."
She folded the phone and slipped in back in her pocket. "I need to go help Willow with… something."
Mark stood up, gathered up the trash and tossed it away. "Anything I can do?"
A look of panic flashed across her face and Dawn shook her head. "NO! It’s like totally girl stuff. Maybe we can get back together in a little while. I’ve got your cell number, I’ll give you a call and we’ll decide where to meet."
Mark nodded, trying not to look hurt. "Okay. I’m going to check out the Slug Hall of Fame. See you later."
The television cameras attracted a small crowd as the perfectly groomed reporter concluded with, "Despite the heat, no one at Slug Fest 2004 is acting the least big sluggish!" The crowd behind him waved enthusiastically in support.
"And CUT! We’re out, Dave." The cameraman put down his equipment and wiped his brow. "Damn it’s hot."
"The weather may be hot, but the story sure isn’t. Every year, it’s the same thing and the same jokes and the same lame eating of the cotton candy slugs and Slugdogs and filming Hamlet in slug suits. I wish I could find a real story here." Dave looked at the crowds with a grimace.
The cameraman shrugged. "It’s Slug Fest. Just be glad it’s not raining. Do you want to go check out the local booths? I bet those witches did their slug soup again this year. It’s always good for a laugh."
"Okay and we’ll see if Mrs. Charter did slug cupcakes for the school bake sale. With Edna gone, she’s got a clear shot at the title for the best baker. Maybe I can find a little angst there. I just want something other than the usual Slug Fest fare!"
Dawn rushed to the tent, only to stop short just inside the entrance. "Ewww. What happened?"
"Good question. Unfortunately, not one that we can answer," Xander informed her.
Dawn saw Carrie standing next to him with her hand in his and smiled.
"Something funny?" he asked.
"Nope, nothing at all," she said turning back to the slugs. "So what happened, I mean, what did you do before… this?" she asked pointing at the giant slugs.
"We didn’t do anything. Lessa and I were selling at the counter, and everyone kept disappearing. Finally we went here to check and bang, we find a real slug fest."
Dawn frowned. "What do mean ‘everyone’ disappeared’?"
"The Coven. Elspeth, Jo, Deborah, Sarah and Katrina. Everyone except us." Lessa rubbed her forehead.
Dawn carefully stepped closer to the slugs. "This one’s kind of pale and looks a more wrinkly than the others."
Willow knelt down next to another. "And this one is brown, almost like…"
"The color of Jo’s hair," Willow and Dawn said at the same time.
Xander sighed in resignation. "I guess we found them."
"Found them? But… these are slugs. They're freaking huge, but… slugs." Carrie spoke with a slight edge of panic in her voice. "How could people turn into slugs? Because you're talking about human beings transforming into animals, right?"
Xander stroked her hand. "It’s okay. That’s pretty much what I meant. Welcome to my life."
She looked at him, then at the slugs and shook her head.
"Carrie?" Xander asked uncertainly.
"I’m… just a bit shocked or make that very shocked. I can’t believe that people turning into slugs would be normal for you… or anyone… or that such things could happen at all."
"Well, if it helps we’re as shocked as you are, and we have no idea how this happened," Willow said.
Suddenly there came a voice from outside. "Hello! We’d like some more of your slug soup."
"What do we do now?" Lessa whispered.
Dawn took a deep breath. "Maybe you should go back to the counter while we try to find out what happened and how to undo it."
Lessa was on her way out, when another voice joined the one outside.
"What is going on inside there? Elspeth? I need to talk to you!"
"Okay, time to change priorities," Willow amended. "Lessa you go outside and tell them something, anything. We’ll get them out of here and hide them to buy us some time."
"Okay." Lessa left the tent, careful, not to let anyone look inside.
Xander rubbed his hands together. "Let’s get them out of here."
"Come and prove your strength at the Giant Slug Tower!! Only the strongest will succeed! Pay once: try three times! We have slug key chains, slug rubber toys, slug notepads and many more prizes!"
Buffy and Giles strolled towards the Giant Slug Tower, a metal construction decorated to look like an old tower made of stone, with painted ivy vines and large slugs in a regular pattern up the front. Each was labeled appropriately as "Sluser," "Slug Again," "Slugtastic," "Slugerific," and "Slug Power." On the top of the tower was a giant slug with a crown and scepter and a sash labeled "Giant Slug Tower Power Master."
"Win a snuggly slug for your girl! Show her what kind of man you are. And the very best will be admitted to the big Slugfest Tower Power contest where he can win the title of Giant Slug Tower Power Master along with an amazing surprise prize. Don’t miss this chance to become a part of Slugfest history!" The chant rolled out rhythmically across the grounds until the caller noticed them staring at the tower.
"How about you? Want to win something for your lady?"
Giles looked at Buffy who answered his implied question with a smile. "I think it’s your turn, macho man. After all, a person can never have too many slug toys."
"Apparently not," he said dryly, but then turned back to the seller and handed him the bills.
The man gave him the hammer, which was, of course, shaped like a slug on a stick.
Giles managed not to roll his eyes and instead rolled up his sleeves as he stood at the foot of the slug tower. He looked over at Buffy, who cuddled her big plush slug, and she gave him a dazzling smile. He smiled back, before turning his attention back to the slug tower and the little green patch he was supposed to hit.
He lifted the hammer and brought it down in a quick precise movement.
The hammer slug hit the green patch and another slug shot up the scale, past "Sluser," higher and higher until it stopped at "Slugtastic."
"Great hit. That’ll be a key chain or notepad for your lady."
Giles ignored him and lifted the hammer again.
This time the slug flew all the way up to "Slugerific."
"Amazing! Folks, we have a superman here, come and see!" The man turned and spoke to Giles, "You now have the choice between a rubber slug for the bath or a bobble slug for the car window. Do you want to take your third swing?" Giles nodded and asked for a moment.
Giles went over to Buffy.
She grinned up at him with a teasing light in her eyes. "I’m proud of you, my burning hunk of Watcher."
"Could you hold that thought for a moment?" he asked casually, unbuttoning his shirt and pulling it off. "It’s incredibly hot and I don’t want to ruin this."
Buffy stared at the T-shirt, stretched taut along his chest. "What thought?"
Giles went back to the tower and took the hammer for the last time. Taking a deep breath, he lifted the slug hammer.
Buffy stared at his cotton clad torso a few more moments, before turning her face up to the slug hammer. She watched as it rushed down, hitting the patch with a loud thud and catapulting the slug past "Slug Power" just to the bottom of the Giant Slug Tower Power Master.
"That’s a stuffed slug for you, mister," the man said, giving Giles a soft brownish something. "And better yet, by reaching the Slug Power level, you’re qualified to take part in the grand finale with a chance to become Giant Slug Tower Power Master. What’s your name?"
Giles gave him his name and went over to Buffy. He bowed slightly and presented the toy slug to her on his open hands. "For my lady."
"Thank you, my dear sir," Buffy said after a small curtsy, then took the slug and hugged it. She held the giant grey slug out to him. "And this one's for you."
"I thought this one was for our bed."
"I guess they'll have to share." She leaned to Giles and whispered, "You might as well fess up. The first tries were all show, just so you could take your shirt off for the ‘final’ effort."
"Well, as I said, it’s a very warm day for this time of the year and it had just finished drying," he defended himself before breaking into a grin. "And if you were right? Would you hold it against me?"
"Only if you’re thinking about putting this back on," she said lifting the shirt in her hands. "I’m taking this hostage for now."
Dawn looked around the corner. The little path behind the slug museum was empty.
"Okay, the coast is clear."
Xander struggled past her with a grayish slug in his arms. His face was a grimace but he went on without stopping.
Behind him Willow and Lessa were carrying Elspeth, careful not to pull too much or to trip over their own or the other’s feet.
Finally came Carrie with the smallest of the slugs. Dawn rushed to help her, but Carrie indicated she was okay. "Trying to patch up squirming little kids helps you with this. Talk about benefits I never would have imagined."
Dawn smiled and looked back around the tent to see if someone was coming towards the path. When she saw that the crowd hadn’t noticed them, she ran up to the front of the group.
They reached the end of the museum tent and Dawn looked around the corner.
"Great," she mumbled to herself, frowning.
A snack tent was next, and at least a dozen people were standing around it, some of them right in the small bit of free space they had to pass. Xander crowded up behind her and her eyebrows shot up. Without turning around she said, "Please tell me that the slimy thing on my back just now was you, Xander."
"If you want me to say so."
She turned around and glared at him.
The others caught up with them and Willow asked, "What’s up?"
"Just a bunch of people eating their slug rings or burgers. I’m not sure if the sight of python sized slugs will do much for them."
"Are they looking this way?" Carrie asked.
Dawn looked around the corner again.
"They’re standing around talking. Sneaking past them is one thing, doing it carrying these…" she said pointing at Sarah and Elspeth, "…pretty much impossible."
"We can’t carry them back," Lessa said, "there was a couple behind the Slugroussel that saw us. I don’t know what they thought we were doing, but with the grinning and whispering I doubt we’ll go unnoticed a second time around."
"You’re right, we can’t go back," Dawn agreed. She thought for a moment, then stood up straight. "Okay, here’s the plan. I’ll divert them. When you hear me scream, you go."
"Scream?" Xander asked.
"Yes," she said with a nod and rushed off, leaving Xander looking confused. A moment later he heard an ear-shattering scream and peaking out, he saw that the snackers had turned their attention to Dawn.
"And now?" Lessa asked.
"If we follow this path, we should come out close to the parking lot. She’ll catch up with us."
"Yeah," Willow said and she and Lessa went on.
Carrie followed and Xander walked next to her.
"Apart from carrying around a slug the size of a small kid, who happened to be a human just hours ago, you mean?"
Carrie didn’t say anything for a few steps then suddenly grinned. "I honestly don’t know," she finally said, shaking her head.
Xander smiled back at her. "You’ll be fine, I’m sure."
Dawn came running up. "Okay, we’re almost there. The lot is about 50 yards over there, next to the Slugnel of Love. I’ll check out the best way to get them into a car. Wait at the end of the path."
She ran off again.
"Remind me to ask her what she told them she screamed about," Lessa told Willow.
"Maybe a slug in the burgers."
"Which would show you again, that the only slug food you should eat is our fabulous slug soup," Lessa said with a glint in her eyes.
"Let’s hope people are not so hell-bent on the soup, that they’ll enter the tent," Willow said.
Dawn ran back to them. "Who would have thought that moving slugs about would be so running intensive," she said out of breath.
"So can we get them to the car unnoticed?" Xander asked.
Dawn shook her head. "No chance. There are people coming and going and all them time and even if we could get a minute, there’s some guy in a slug suit welcoming people. He’s standing right at the entrance."
"Damn, we have to hide them somewhere!" said Xander, trying to keep Deborah from slipping away.
"What about that shed over there behind the Slugnel of Love?" Willow said. "It’ll buy us some time to think of something."
Dawn ran off again. They could see her knocking on what looked like a shipping container with a door. Nothing happened and she opened it. She went inside and after a moment came out again and ran back to them.
"Looks good. Seems to be some tech stuff. Probably for the Slugnel, but nobody’s in there and from the look of it, people aren’t going in too often."
They carried the coven slugs over and Dawn opened the door to let them all in.
"Home sweet home," Xander joked when they entered the dirty space.
"It’s baking in here," Lessa said carefully letting Elspeth down.
"She’s not looking good, is she?" Willow asked watching the large pale slug.
"Maybe they need food or drink," Carrie said. "I’m afraid I’m not very useful when it comes to slug healthcare."
"But I know someone who is!" Dawn said her eyes sparkling. "You get Jo and Katrina and I’ll get all the info on slugs we’ll need."
"Wilson, did you hear that?"
The teenager paused in his ramble through the festival. "Hear what?"
Marcy looked around and said, "I thought I heard a girl scream."
A Slugdog in each hand, Johnny ran up to his two friends. "Come on, you gotta see this."
Frowning, Marcy turned to Johnny. "I thought I heard a scream. Did you hear a scream?"
"Yeah, it was some girl …"
Dawn ran past them at full speed.
Johnny gestured toward her as she passed. "Her, I think. But forget her! You’ve got to see this! There are giant slugs back there!"
Wilson grimaced at the news, and Marcy perked up. "Really? Where?"
"Why do I get the feeling we should have Mission Impossible music as our soundtrack right now?" Lessa groaned, trying uselessly to rub the slime from her hands to her jeans. "Or maybe Little Shop of Horrors would be more appropriate?"
"I thought it was going pretty well so far," Xander rubbed his hands together, also fighting to free himself of the persistent slime. He gave his hands a sniff and shrugged. "Wonder if this is good for your skin? Like some fancy exfoliate?"
"Wanna look your best, hey?" Lessa noticed Carrie marching determinedly back toward the Coven booth, now completely absorbed within the mission and oblivious to being covered with slug tracks. "Your friend seems to be handling this well. How many women would secretly cart around giant slugs during the town festival and not ask too many questions?"
"Only one other I know," Xander teased. "Yeah, I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not."
"Makes for an easier introduction for the rest of it. I’d say that’s a good thing. It’s not everyday you find out there are super heroes as well as super villains in the world." Lessa flung a string of slug snot to the dusty ground.
Xander stood straighter and puffed his chest out. "There have always been heroes. We’re just a different type."
"I like her." Lessa wiped her hands off on his back and gave him a playful push.
"Thanks a lot." Xander jerked towards her, as if he was going to give chase then decided it was better not to draw attention to them. "Really, I mean it. That means a lot to me." He smiled. "I like her too. Think I’ll keep her, if she’ll let me." He rushed to catch up with Carrie.
He looked up from examining one of the slug-o-ramas. This particular one detailed the natural environment of a colony of banana slugs. "Hey, Dawn. I thought you were going to call."
She pushed her hair away from her sweaty forehead and tried to catch her breath. "I couldn’t get an answer," she wheezed. "I’ve been looking everywhere for you."
Mark pulled the phone out of his pocket and shrugged sheepishly. "I guess I sort of forgot to turn it on."
She scowled then grabbed his arm and pulled him to a quiet corner of the room. "What can you tell me about taking care of sick slugs?"
She glared at him. "I don’t have time for questions! Start talking. Your reputation as a science geek is on the line here."
Mark scratched his head. "I guess the most important thing is environment. They need to be kept cool and moist. Slugs don’t just like being slimy, they need to be that way. They breathe through their skin and the slime gathers moisture out of the air like a sponge."
Dawn nodded. "Got it. Anything else?"
"Do you need to know about feeding them?"
Dawn shook her head. "I hope it’s not going to last that long."
Mark looked puzzled.
"Never mind. Anything else?"
"Keep them away from salt." He shuddered. "It’s a nasty way to go."
"Cool, moist, hold the salt!" Dawn bounced in place for a minute as trying to make up her mind about something. Finally she gave him a sunny smile and a quick kiss. "You’re the best. See you later."
Mark touched his fingers to his lips and watched her disappear out the door. "I’m really never gonna understand women."
Dawn rounded the corner at a run. She flicked open her cell phone and hit speed call for Willow. "I finally found Mark. He says we need to keep them someplace cool and moist." She swerved to avoid being run over by a harried mother with toddling twins. "That shed is like an oven! You’ve got to do something or all that’s going to be left is a pile of dried slime!" She dodged a pushcart vendor selling slug burgers. "I’ll meet you back at the booth in a few minutes!"
Buffy clutched their various prizes in one hand and kept Giles close with the other. "This has been so much fun. I can’t remember when I just relaxed this completely." She looked up and frowned. "Wait, if I’m this relaxed, there must be something wrong. I should call Dawn."
"Buffy, relax. If anything was wrong, one of them would have reached us. Let them have their day, and we can have ours."
Buffy hesitated for a moment and nodded. "I’m sure you’re right. So, what do we do next?"
"Tell me again why we left our shady tree?" Giles wiped his brow. "Maybe we should go to the museum. I think they have air-conditioning there."
Buffy looked thoughtful and then grinned. "Nope! I know some place much better than that. It’s cool and moist and private. Follow me!"
Johnny and Marcy stood impatiently as they waited with Wilson in the food line. "I don’t know why you had to get something to eat right now. Can’t it wait? I wanna see the giant slugs."
A quick smirk crossed Johnny’s face, and he said in an exaggerated whisper, "Dontcha know? Wilson don’t like slugs."
Wilson’s face was red when he turned to Johnny and raised a fist at him. "Take it back!"
Marcy rolled her eyes at the two boys. "Puh-leez."
For one moment, Wilson looked as if he were about to hit Johnny. Then his lips started twitching, and he laughed.
Johnny shook his head. "You’re such a dorkwad. When are you gonna finish up with that stupid acting class?"
"’Nother two weeks, then I can start looking for an agent, Mom said." Wilson took another look at the number of people in line. "You’re right. This’ll take too long. Let’s go see the stupid slugs."
"I’m sorry, we had a bit of an… accident. Could you come back later? In an hour… or two?"
Lessa tried to calm down the crowd that had started to build wanting some of the slug soup and other Coven treats. They weren’t happy, but moved on. Lessa added a "in two hours" to her original note that said "Taking a break. Please come back later."
She went into the tent where she found the others moving around, panicked. On the table, the pale yellow Katrina lay next to a few glasses of jam. However the brown slug was no where in sight.