Drink this, itll make you feel better. Astra handed Buffy a steaming mug.
What is it?
Cocoa, the fortune-teller said, smiling. Im all out of magical potions.
Buffy sat in Astras trailer beside Will on the couch, both huddled up in large blankets. The Slayer had an idea that it might be smart to remove the wet clothing, but the blanket and the cocoa would do for now.
Astra sat across from the soaked teenagers. So, what have you two been up to? I hope you got to the vampire before it killed somebody.
Buffy grimaced. Im afraid I didnt. I She seemed to realize something, then discard it as useless. I guess it doesnt matter if you know now. She turned to Will. I also guess I owe you one, Will.
Will smiled shyly. Augh, it was nothing. I fight vampires all the time.
Buffys grimace turned to a frown. Thats not really something you want as a career choice, trust me. Her gaze returned to her cup, and when she spoke, her voice was quiet and small. Theres a body up in the Ferris Wheel. I dont know who she was, but shes very dead.
Astra got up quickly and headed for the door. Ill take care of it. Youll watch over my Will, wont you?
Buffy managed a smile. Yes, maam.
After the fortune-teller left, there was an uncomfortable silence in which the two, tentatively, became friends. Its actually a surprising thing, friendship. It can be so hard to pinpoint the exact moment two people stop being faces in the crowd and start becoming friends, but it often comes during uncomfortable silences when both are thinking of each other and what brought them to this very moment.
But Buffy wasnt interested in making friends; she knew all too well what happened to them while she was around. And when she wasnt. So the process was reluctant, and it ended with Buffy leaning over and resting her head on his shoulder.
* * *
What is the deal here?
The deal, Buffy, replied Rya Raines, is that carnies are this continents version of gypsies, and along with that comes a certain bent for the unusual.
So you knew I was a Slayer?
They were all sitting in Ryas trailer the next morning, Buffy, Astra, Will, and Rya; to anyone passing by, it looked like a leisurely breakfast, although there probably wouldnt be anyone passing by, since it was still raining like the clouds had been carrying around the Pacific Ocean for a while, and decided it was time to release some ballast.
Actually, Astra filled me in on that part, but we all have our problems, dont we? Believe me, you dont want to know mine.
Astra finished off a rather delicious slice of toast with homemade raspberry jam. Your arrival here at the carnival is rather fortuitous, Buffy. We have been plagued by mysterious disappearances in recent weeks, and now we know why.
Glad I could be of service, Buffy said with a hint of sarcasm.
At least none of the missing persons were carnies, reflected Rya.
What, somehow that makes it better? protested Buffy. Dead people are dead people, no matter who they are or what they do.
No, said Will patiently, it doesnt make it better. But were all one big family here, and, well, being missing is one thing, but knowing that they were killed by a vampire Were just glad none of our family were taken.
Yet, said Buffy flatly.
Yet, Will agreed.
Buffy sat lost in thought for a moment, going over what they had just said; there was something important that she almost missed, now what was it? Oh.
Why havent any carnies been taken?
The others shrugged.
I can think of two reasons: one, the vampire is, or was, a carny.
Rya coughed. Impossible. How could the vampire be a carny? What happens to him during the day?
That brings me to my second reason: whoevers hiding him is a carny.
It was Astras turn to be shocked. Hiding him? You cant be serious.
Rya sighed. No, Astra, she is serious, and as much as wed like to think that our family is good and upright, there could be someone who She closed her eyes for a moment, wincing slightly. Who would make a deal with a devil.
Will spoke slowly. Perhaps this person made a bargain with the vampire he would hide him during the day, and at night, when it feeds, it only takes marks.
Either way, this stinks like last weeks Red Lobster catch of the day, said Buffy. If somebodys hiding this vampire, we have to find out who and where.
* * *
Joyce told me what happened, I think. But Buffy hasnt been here.
Buffys father slumped slightly in his chair. To Giles, the man looked beaten, a tired, worn-out shadow with little energy left to fight the darkness. The Watcher felt a stirring sympathy for this father who saw his daughter maybe a few times a year, and who has just realized that even in times of trouble, he wasnt someone Buffy could turn to for help.
Giles could definitely relate.
Im really sorry, Mr. Summers, but if we are to find her, we must explore all avenues of, um, investigation. No phone calls?
A shake of the head.
No knocks on the door, and when you answered, no one was there?
Giles paused. This was the tough question. Do you know where she might have gone?
Mr. Summers raised his head and met the librarians gaze. If she didnt come here, what does that say about me? How well can I know my own daughter when she cant come to me for help?
Giles cleared his throat. You cant blame yourself, Mr. Summers. I
Why not? His voice grew in anger. She needed her father, and where was I? Here in L.A., because I couldnt get along with her mother. And now that, from what you say, her world is falling apart His left hand, balled into a fist, slammed down on the coffee table beside him. I failed her, and shes gone to God knows where to get away from her life, which, until recently, included me.
Giles sighed. Im sorry, Mr. Summers. We will find her, I can assure you. Please dont dont believe that your daughter does not know that you love her. She is a very confused young girl right now.
Mr. Summers wiped his eyes and looked at the Watcher. You youre probably the closest thing to a father shes got, am I right?
Giles backpedalled mentally. Uh, well, I suppose that may be the case, but
Buffys father held out his hand, and Giles took it automatically.
When you find my daughter, tell her that Im sorry. Be the father for her that I should have been. Can you do that for me?
Their eyes locked, and Giles felt some sort of pact, a promise pass between them.
* * *
Buffy stepped out of Ryas trailer feeling rather frustrated. They had talked for a while, but nothing came of it. At least she didnt have to worry about those three; Rya looked like shes dealt with worse things in her lifetime, Astra would probably give the vampire the evil eye, and Will
Her mind harrumphed.
He was a nice boy, but she didnt have time for that. Didnt have the space in her heart for that. As she walked down the row between the trailers, she let her memory touch Angels face lightly, so lightly, but it still hurt like the sword was going through her midsection instead of his. No space in her heart at all for anything.
She didnt see the hand holding the damp rag until it was too late, and the chloroform did its work quietly and efficiently. As the fog enveloped her consciousness, she was surprised at how welcome it felt.
When Buffy opened her eyes, another Buffy two feet away opened hers. She blinked, the other blinked. Her mind fought through the last tendrils of fog to burst onto the scene and make a quick conclusion.
That would be a mirror.
Right. She tried to sit up, and her head felt like it had been stuffed with cotton balls. Heavy, soaking wet cotton balls. She shook her head, and almost passed out from the dizziness that resulted. Lying back down on the wooden floor, she mentally kicked her brain in the butt and forced it to work.
Where am I?
Her eyes roamed her surroundings, and reported back to the brain.
Surrounded by mirrors. Except for straight ahead, which appears to be a hallway of mirrors leading into darkness.
Way to go, brain.
Add it all up, kid. Youre in a maze of mirrors. Youre in the fun house.
She groaned. She had never been good at mazes. Made her feel like a rat.
Who put you here?
That was an easy one.
The guy hiding the vampire.
Too bad he snuck up on her from behind; of course, if he had snuck up on her from the front, that would have been rather unsuccessful.
Why am I still alive?
That wasnt so easy. That took a few moments.
Because the vampire cant get from wherever hes hiding to the fun house without walking in daylight.
She sat up quickly and pushed back with her feet until her back rested against the mirrored dead-end wall. Having a watch would be good right about now.
Then it occurred to her to listen carefully, and she did. She heard nothing. Therefore
Therefore the fun house is probably closed, which means its way past my bedtime.
She struggled to her feet, using the wall as support. Her head was still quite out of balance, and she knew that facing a vampire in the next five minutes would be a short fight.
So? Lets get out of here, then.
Right. She started down the hallway, trying to remember what youre supposed to do in a maze. Was it turn left at every intersection? Turn right? Turn left, then right, then left? A groggy head didnt make this any easier. She looked in the mirror and stared at herself for a moment. Was it her imagination, or was her reflection mocking her? Then it hit her like a bag of stakes: she could see her own reflection
But vampires dont have reflections.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a shadow flit by, and she turned her head quickly, hoping to spot it. Nothing there.
She waited a few seconds for her heart to resume something like a normal rate and moved on, coming to an intersection after several shuffling steps.
Left? Or right? What would Giles do?
Oh, that hurt to think about. Lets not do that again.
She continued down this new corridor until she reached another dead end. She turned quickly around, suddenly afraid that the vampire was right behind her.
She went back to the intersection, and struggled to remember which way she had already come from before.
Straight? Or right?
A shuffling sound from the right corridor decided her.
Okay, okay, lets get lucky, all I need is some strong coffee and a fattening pastry of some sort, and Ill be fine.
Her feet moved faster. Another intersection, this time with three possibilities. Behind her, a shadow moved, and she whirled around to face
Hes stalking me.
Youre stalking me. Wonderful. Could you at least tell me which way to the exit so we can make the ending more exciting?
The shadow, wherever it was, remained silent. Buffy shrugged, and picked the left corridor. With each step, she felt her head slowly become a little lighter, a little less tight. This was encouraging. She turned a corner, and
The vampire grabbed her by the throat and slammed her against the wall. Buffy tried to choke out a scream, but she couldnt get any air through. She stared at the reflection in the mirror behind the undead creature; it looked like she was being suspended in midair by absolutely nothing. Desperate, she kicked at the undead creature, hitting him in the crotch.
With a wail, the vampire staggered back, clutching at his privates. Buffy coughed a couple of times, catching her breath.
I can fight dirtier than that, (cough), if youd like.
The vampire straightened, which must have been an effort, because the wince never left its face. Do what you think you must, little girl, youll still be dead by sunup.
Buffy took a deep breath, and hoped that she had recovered enough to do some damage. One of us will be.
The vampire leapt at her, and she dodged out of his way, giving him a kick to the stomach for his trouble. He recovered quickly, punching her in the head. She crashed into the mirrored wall, falling to the floor. She rolled towards him and grabbed his legs before he could move, yanking him downwards. He fell on top of her, and they struggled there, with his fangs trying for her throat, and her hands keeping his head well back. Finally she rolled them both, slamming his body into the mirror, shattering it. She pushed away from him and jumped to her feet.
The vampire, wary now, got up slowly and gave her a baleful glare.
Why dont you just die, like a good little girl?
Buffy smiled. I was never a good little girl.
She kicked at his head, forcing him backwards. She followed up with a roundhouse kick that caught him in the side of the head and spun him around like a top. She advanced on the vampire and socked him in the jaw, stunning him.
But I was always the Slayer.
The vampire stared at her, fear alight in his dead eyes.
Jake! he yelled. I need some help here!
Emerging from the shadows behind the vampire, Jake Chambers walked towards them, holding a gun.
You cant handle this little bitch, Bobby?
Buffy stepped back, wondering if her Slayer powers had some sort of special protection from bullets.
Great to see you, Jake. What, ripping people off wasnt enough fun?
Jake grinned. I can think of a lot of things that might be a lot of fun. You dying, thatd be one. But Id also like to see what you got goin on, if you know what I mean.
Buffy snorted. Didnt you get a chance to cop a feel when I was unconscious? Or did that seem too familiar an experience for you, drugging helpless young girls?
The vampire, Bobby, looked like he was getting his wind back. Willpower, little girl, is a very important thing to have. You must wait for just the right moment, or it all seems cheap and worthless.
Buffy took another step back. So whats your deal, boys? You both heavy into the evil trip, or do you have some sort of Siegfried and Roy thing happening?
Jake put an arm around the vampires shoulders. Hes my brother, he said proudly.
Terrific. Im sure your mother is very proud. Well, gotta go! And Buffy dashed around the corner and down the corridor, just in time to escape the speeding bullet that smashed into the mirror behind her. As she ran, she could hear Jake tell his brother to guard the exit.
Intersection. Take a right.
The gun boomed.
Okay, lets try left.
Buffy quickly became disoriented, as several mirror images ran alongside her into the darkness, and with each intersection, she just picked a direction randomly. Behind her, she could hear Jake yelling.
Maybe after were done with you, we can find that skinny old witch and find out what colour her blood is!
How big was this maze, anyway? Left turn, left turn, right turn, left turn, right turn. She came into a corridor and was surprised to see Jake at the other end of it with his back to her. For a moment, she thought about sneaking up on him. He seemed to sense her thought, and turned suddenly. She yelped and ducked back into the previous corridor.
Not so fast, little girl! I got a nice big hammer for ya!
Yeah, thats what they all say.
Finally she found herself at the center of the mirror maze, which was a large circle with four corridors going in the compass directions, and mirrors filling in the gaps. She turned to see a couple dozen reflections looking back at her. Jakes heavy footsteps echoed down one of the corridors. There wasnt much time. Inspiration struck.
Youre such a two-dimensional girl.
Jake slowed as he entered the center of the maze. Something wasnt right. He could feel it. Hell, hed been feeling it from the moment that girl stepped up to his high-striker yesterday and made him look the fool. Well, thered be plenty of time for payback. Oh, yes. Bobbyd have his fun, but first, Jake has gotta have his fun. He held the gun up, watching his reflections. He admired the pose he was making; he could have been an action star, look at that stance, that grip, that authority.
He stepped into the center of the circular room.
Buffy fell on him.
They hit the floor, the gun bouncing out of his grip, sliding to the far wall. Buffy recovered first and punched him in the face, then the gut. He groaned, staring up at the ceiling, which was just a series of tarpaulins resting over wooden crossbeams. He had never thought to look up.
She punched him again, and he reached out blindly for anything. He got her armpit. He pinched violently, and she cried out, rolling off him. Seeing his chance, he crawled towards the gun, scuttled like an injured crab, all the while his mind yelling at him, telling him how monumentally stupid he was, how he should be calling for help right now, but he couldnt, because this was just a girl, and there had never been a girl he couldnt handle.
His hand closed on the grip just as her hand closed on his ankle.
She pulled first, dragging him back towards her, and as he brought the gun around, she leaped onto him, matching his grip on the weapon.
They struggled with a desperate intensity, and when the gun finally went off, it was a relief to both of them.
And then Jake died.
Buffy lay there for a couple of minutes, shaking.
I just killed a human being.
He was going to kill you, if you remember.
Yeah, but hes dead. I could have just wounded him or something.
Oh, really? I wasnt aware that you had the time and opportunity to make that kind of decision.
Im the Slayer. He was a human. I had an unfair advantage, and
He was pumped full of adrenaline. That evens it out.
But Im supposed to kill vampires and demons.
Two things: one, it was self-defense, and two, he was probably no less evil than his brother.
Who was running towards her right this
The vampire crashed into Buffy, knocking the wind right out of her. She tried to push Bobby away, but this was a vampire that had just lost his brother. This was a vampire like few others she had faced.
This was a vampire with nothing to lose.
He grabbed her head and slammed it into the floor, stunning her. He punched her in the face once, twice, then pulled her up and threw her across the room. She shattered the mirror, glass shards falling all around her. In her dazed state of mind, it looked like shiny snowflakes.
Snowflakes. I like snow. Nice and fluffy.
The vampire came at her slowly now, carefully. It bent down, kneeling beside her. She could barely resist; she felt so tired, her limbs felt like rubber. The fangs looked so big and sharp from this angle, and she vaguely wondered if Angels teeth had ever looked like that.
A hand tapped on the vampires shoulder.
Excuse me? I think thats my employee youve got there.
Bobby looked up to see a crowbar come streaking down, smashing into his face. The force of the blow sent the creature flying backwards, landing heavily on his dead brother.
Buffy blinked and saw Rya Raines standing over her with a concerned look. Are you all right, honey?
Snowflakes, she replied.
Rya nodded as if this was the answer she expected. You just lay there and let us take care of carny business. She straightened and nodded to Will, who was taking a stake out of a very large bag.
Will went over to the vampire, who was still trying to recover from the blow to the face. Bobby Chambers. And we thought you had run away to become respectable. Boy, were we way off or what? He raised the stake and plunged it into the vampires heart. The undead creature exploded in a shower of dust.
Rya knelt down and brushed the hair back from Buffys eyes. Perhaps you should rest a little while, honey. Youve had a rough day.
Nice and fluffy, said the Slayer.
* * *
Im sorry I cant stay. You understand.
Will smiled, but it didnt look right. It looked fake. Buffy wondered if she was ever going to get good at saying goodbye.
I guess when that happens, thats when you know youve run out of friends.
Its okay. Gramma explained it to me, anyway.
Gramma. Astra. Buffy was still amazed at the unflappable demeanour of these people. Especially when they explained to her how the situation was going to unfold.
Well spread the story around that Jake decided to go find his brother. Astra smiled. To Buffy, it looked like the old woman actually enjoyed talking about all this, like it was some big game.
Rya laughed. Thats as close to the truth as were going to get. And Rya, this middle-aged wonder who seems as capable running a carnival as she is with a crowbar.
How did you find us?
Rya shrugged. The gunshots were a big clue.
But what about the body? What about ?
Already taken care of, my dear. Astras sharp eyes watched the young girl like a hawk. And youll be moving on, wont you? Enough excitement for one carnival?
It was disconcerting how they knew what she was thinking, almost before she thought it. Buffy wondered for the hundredth time whether Rya had been a Slayer.
Will held out his hand. Rya asked me to give this to you when you left. A payment for services rendered, she called it.
Buffy stared at the wad of cash, and continued to stare as he took it and stuffed it in her front pocket. Thats really not necessary.
Will smiled, and this time it was a real smile. For some reason, that made Buffy feel a lot better. It is, and you know you need it. Now get on with your bad self before I decide to go with you.
She grabbed him in a bear hug and kissed him lightly on the cheek.
Have a good life, she said through a veil of tears, and suddenly it felt like she was really saying goodbye to her Sunnydale friends, saying the farewells that she never found the courage for, and she clutched Will tightly, waiting for the tremendous sadness to go away.
Finally they separated, and Will cleared his throat.
You too. And you never know we might see each other again someday.
Id like that.
She took a step back, then another, then another, turning on one heel and walking through the carnival gates. Just before hitting the road, she looked back, and there he was, watching her. He waved.
She waved back.
The days are long, but the nights are longer. The soul goes hungry, and the spirit trembles under the weight of sadness. But we go on, because thats what we do. We go on.
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