The sun shone happily on Willow and Tara as they moved down the streets of Trillium's shopping district. While there could be no denying that the two women were, indeed, walking together – they maintained the same pace and were more or less side-by-side – a generous helping of personal space had been established between them. Not enough room for a person to step between the witches, but several inches that prevented hands from accidentally brushing and making a slightly awkward situation more so.
"This is good," Willow declared, looking at the stores around them. "This is nice. You. Me. Sunny day. An afternoon's pleasure in the purchasing of fine wares from local vendors."
Nodding, Tara expressed her agreement at the statement. "Thanks. For coming with me. Though I'm sure I could've found it myself."
"Well sure – Trillium, not exactly Los Angeles, you know?" The redhead considered this for a moment. "Which wouldn't necessarily be bad, since we'd have Angel and Cordy and Fred and everything, though the weather's completely wrong for L.A., and this is so entirely not the point." Favoring Tara with a small smile, she assured, "I wanted to come. Plus, I gotta admit – ulterior motive."
At the questioning eyebrow, Willow produced a slightly crumpled piece of paper from her pocket. "Book list," she explained. "I've been doing some research on our ... our ‘problem'. With the powers?" At Tara's nod of understanding, Willow stuffed the page back into her coat. "I've got some new leads."
Tara dodged around a couple moving swiftly in the opposite direction and glanced at the other witch. "Mr. Giles has been working with me, seeing what's different? I think he's right, I think that spell you did to ... to save me? It's ... There's something there now. Between us. I can feel it." A moment of contemplative silence passed. "I think I could use some of your power now. I-If I had to."
Neither responded to this statement, and they continued onward without comment, the tension causing both women to fidget uncomfortably.
"I'm sorry," Willow apologized in a quiet voice.
Clearly not understanding, Tara frowned and shook her head. Willow attempted to explain. "You shouldn't have to ... I mean, I don't want to deal with it most of the time. And now here you are, pulled out of—" The redhead glanced over nervously. "Forced to go through who-knows-what, made to think you had to do terrible stuff, and what's your big reward at the end of the day?"
Willow blinked at Tara, unsure of how to respond as Tara met Willow's gaze.
"And that's something. Right?"
"It's everything." As soon as the words had left Willow's mouth, she appeared to want nothing more than to snatch them out of the air and stuff them back into her mouth where the traitorous things should never have escaped in the first place. Unable to do that, she settled for turning away as a flush crept its way up her neck. Consequently, her eyes lit upon a flier displayed in the window of a record store, its vibrant colors causing it to stand out among the dozens or so others that coated the glass.
Immediately interested, Willow came to a halt. "Oh, neat!" she exclaimed.
Having stopped just a pace or two after the redhead, Tara stepped closer and followed Willow's pointing finger. "Renaissance festival?" Tara read, casting a dubious glance at the still-bare trees that surrounded them. "Now?"
Willow was undaunted. "This is so great! I've always wanted to go to one of these things! Everything so ... chivalrous and medieval, with- with knights and armor and fair damsels all flowing and chiffony." Her expression lit up like someone in Willow's brain had just flipped a switch, and she spun to regard Tara. "You would look so good all flowing and chiffony!"
"Oh, would I, now?" contested the blonde in a flat tone that was entirely betrayed by the amused glint in her eye.
Immediately flustered, Willow's previously rampant enthusiasm began to fizzle uncertainly. "O-Or shiny and armor-y. Being a ... a bold, independent woman of today, there's absolutely no reason why you have to be a fair damsel ... Not that you aren't! I mean, even in chainmail, you'd be a damsel, in the base definition of the word, and the fairness of you – well, that's just a given, so—"
Tara cut in, still highly entertained judging from her smirk. "Will. Breathe."
"Breathing good. Yes." Willow nodded with much gusto. "I'm in support of oxygen. Go oxygen."
Shaking her head, Tara turned her attentions back to the flier. "Hey, look, they still have booths for rent."
Hopefully but tentatively, Willow ventured, "You wanna maybe get one? You an' me?" As the blonde looked uncertain and leaning toward the ‘I don't think that's such a good idea' response, Willow hastened to add: "Just a fun thing, in a nice, safe, entirely platonic sense. We can sell little charms and some potion stuff in pretty bottles – all harmless, of course." Her eyes began to shine again with the possibilities. "It'll be like the- The Magic Box! Only, you know, not a box. A booth. A stall. ‘The Magic Stall'?" Her face crinkled in disapproval. "Nnn."
"Maybe ... all of us?" Tara offered.
But Willow was still deeply pondering naming options. "‘The Magic Shanty'?" She bopped her head back and forth, seeming to consider the suggestion had potential, then focused once more on the blonde. "All of us?" she repeated.
"You, me, Buffy, Xander ... Dawn. I think this could be good for Dawnie. Help get her mind off stuff." The witches resumed their walking, and Tara's eyebrows furrowed. "I'm worried about her."
Willow seemed quite amenable to this idea. "Yeah. Be good for Buffy, too. I haven't seen her this stressed out since ..." Glancing up, she searched her memory. "Well, just a couple weeks ago, but still. We could all use something light and fun and brightly colored." Her lips pulled back in a challenging grin and she leaned toward Tara. "So, you in?"
"I'm in," Tara agreed with a smile.
Beaming happily, the redhead gave a nearly imperceptible skip. "This'll be great. Bright gowns, fake royalty, way too many ‘Wilt thou's and ‘Forsooth's, a disturbingly vast array of food items on sticks ..." She smiled and spread her arms wide. "It'll be like a whole ‘nother world."
Story by: Jet Wolf, Novareinna and Ultrace
Written by: Novareinna and Jet Wolf
Edited by: Jet Wolf and Novareinna
Original Airdate: Tuesday, 26 October 2004, 8pm EST
In a slightly busier, more bustling section of town, the two witches chatted amiably, each carrying several books. Tara had selected a small volume of poetry and an old novel whose title was impossible to discern, while Willow had settled on four over-large, ancient-looking texts with foreign titles. The blonde laughed at something Willow had said, then tilted her head to one side as she watched a tall brunette cross the street with a big bag in her hand.
"Is that Dawn?" Tara wondered aloud as the girl moved further away from them.
Willow studied the figure as well then, after sharing a glance, both women called out, "Dawn!"
Several yards away, Dawn jumped – as did several other nearby pedestrians – and looked around in confusion. She soon spotted her friends, however, and rapidly approached, swinging her bag happily.
"Hey guys," she greeted. "Out and about, huh? Snagging some quality time?"
The question was innocent enough, though tinged with the faintest hopeful note, and the meaningful lift of Dawn's eyebrows added a layer that caused the witches to share a quick embarrassed and absurdly guilty look.
Raising her purchase slightly, Tara replied, "Just checking out an old book store. You guys've had almost a year to get possessions and stuff, I feel all behind."
"Hey, don't have to justify shopping to me," dismissed the teenager, turning and heading back in the direction she had been walking before her detour. Tara and Willow followed, exchanging a concerned glance.
"How y'feelin', Dawnie?" queried the redhead.
"Better now I'm out of the house for a bit." Her eyes rolled dramatically. "I swear, it was starting to feel like Oz up there. As in, ‘Penitentiary of', not ‘Wizard of'," she clarified.
"I'm surprised Buffy let you out of her sight," Tara admitted.
Audibly huffing, Dawn let it be known that she felt much the same, but with less wonder and more irritation. "Well she's gonna have to do it eventually, right? I mean, I've had, like, every test known to man, and a few that I swear came from this demon dimension I read about one time. And nothing. The doctors give me a clean bill of health." She laughed, but it came out a tight and bitter sound. "And it's not like doctors can be wrong, right? So I must be fine."
Another look passed between the two witches, and their shared thought was clear – Dawn was anything but fine. Neither seemed certain of what to do, when Tara spied the answer across the street in the form of an ice cream shop. Smiling, she threw an arm over Dawn's shoulders. "You know, it just occurred to me that I must owe you something like 50 shakes. If I'm ever gonna break even, I should probably get a move on."
Dawn's expression was equal parts delight and gratitude, and she willingly allowed herself to be steered back across the street. Hanging behind, Willow took in the conflict of emotions Dawn continued to exude, and seemed to reach a decision.
"Oh, hey!" she announced brightly. "Th-There's this fabric shop, just a few stores down. I'm gonna head on over, see what I can find to fill all our Renaissance-y needs."
"You don't want anything?" The mere notion of someone turning down a frozen treat was clearly outside of Dawn's capacity to reconcile.
"I think I'm gonna pass. You get a double and drink some for me, ‘kay?"
The redhead grinned assuredly, and Dawn nodded. As she moved into the store, Tara threw Willow a ‘thank you' look that Willow returned with a smile. Handing over her books, she left Dawn and Tara to have a good talk and bonding session.
Heading immediately for a table by the large window facing the street outside, Dawn situated herself comfortably in the chair and handed Tara a menu as the blonde joined her.
After a few moments, a young man dressed smartly in the traditional "soda jerk" outfit without all the embarrassing extras greeted them. "Good afternoon, ladies. What can I get for you?"
Still buried in her menu, Tara was reading through her choices. Finally she came to one that gave her serious pause. "Vanilla Coke?" she questioned, clearly unsure where she stood on the matter at first glance. "That's new."
"It came out a couple years ago," Dawn explained easily, then her eyes widened and darted fearfully to the patient waiter. "You ... must've missed it. Being ... overseas."
Peering at the teenager over her menu, Tara replied, "Yes, what with my hectic secret double life and all."
Embarrassed at the gentle poke, Dawn dove back into the safe depths of her menu as Tara placed her order. "I'll try a vanilla Coke. It sounds ... interesting."
"It's a true flavor sensation," he replied dryly, then grinned to take the bite out as he turned to Dawn. "And for you, ma'am?"
"I'll take a large chocolate-raspberry shake," she ordered with authority, then added, "Can you make it with banana too?"
The waiter blinked.
"Speaking of flavor sensations ..." Tara commented.
"I think the guy in the back will balk at the idea," confessed the waiter, "but I'll make sure it's done, just for you."
Dawn beamed sunnily as the waiter left to place their order, leaving her and Tara alone.
"It's scary, huh?" the blonde finally broached.
Shrugging, Dawn replied, "Not really. I like banana a whole lot."
"The other thing," smirked Tara, before continuing in a more serious tone, "The head thing."
With a small nod, the teenager allowed her gaze to drift out of the shop window. "Sort of." She paused then, and Tara continued to wait patiently. "But at the same time? Not really." Turning back to the witch, Dawn sounded less introspective and more like herself. "I mean, it's scary because Buffy's so obviously freaking out, which I totally knew was gonna happen. And it's like ... Wow, hey, now I know what a CAT scan is, and I could've lived my whole life with that big question mark."
Once again, she became silent, attempting to gather her thoughts. "I dunno," Dawn shrugged. "It doesn't feel ... bad? Apart from the pain, that's bad. The rest though? It's weird. But not scary."
And with that, she seemed to be at a loss for what else to say. Tara absorbed Dawn's words silently, allowing the teenager to pick absently at one of the napkins she'd tugged free of the nearby dispenser. The waiter arrived with their drinks, and Tara smiled her thanks, but still Dawn remained locked in contemplation. The tall, frothy shake went untouched.
Tara regarded Dawn for a moment longer, then claimed one of the straws that had been delivered to their table. She peeled it free from the wrapper, placed it in the drink and sipped, all the while watching as Dawn's hands deftly mutilated the napkin. The taste of the vanilla Coke was obviously a surprise to Tara, and she started at the flavor. After a moment's consideration, she shrugged and sipped some more. Dawn, meanwhile, had barely moved.
"So, what's in the bag?" inquired the blonde, clearly having decided that things had gone on long enough.
Dawn blinked, her confusion plain now that her reverie had been disturbed. ‘What?"
With her head, Tara indicated the package that was resting at Dawn's feet. "The bag. The big ol' bag of surprise and intrigue."
"Oh!" Finally the teenager smiled again, and she seemed to notice for the first time that her shake had arrived. Devoting the bulk of her attention to the ice cream, she responded simply with, "Birdcage."
This answer obviously made little sense. "With Nathan Lane?"
"No, silly," corrected Dawn with a chuckle, working enthusiastically on the drink before her. "A birdcage. The kind that houses actual birds?"
"You're getting a bird?" Tara asked, still perplexed.
Dawn opened her mouth to answer, but was suddenly distracted by a movement outside of the window. Both she and Tara turned to behold Willow standing on the street, holding up a large bolt of nauseatingly bright bubblegum pink material. She'd unraveled one end and was holding it out, presenting it with great enthusiasm. Eyes wide, the redhead grinned and nodded to the fabric as if to say, ‘What do you think?' Ever so slowly, Tara's eyebrow crept upward, and she shook her head. Willow's face fell, just a little, and she headed back toward the fabric shop.
"What was that all about?" inquired a highly amused Dawn.
"Willow wants to go to this Renaissance festival that's coming to town, and have us all get into it, with a booth and costumes and everything. She seems ... very enthused."
A laugh in her voice, the teenager glanced back in the direction Willow had taken. "How did she get the fabric, did she just walk out with it?"
"I think some questions are best left unanswered," Tara chuckled. "So what now, you're getting a bird?"
"Kinda." Pulling her straw free from the thick mass of shake, Dawn messily slurped on the bottom, completely ignoring the spoon that had been provided for that exact purpose. "There's this baby bird, in the tree outside my room."
Tara regarded her with some surprise. "Dawn, you can't keep a wild bird as a pet."
"No, I know that. I don't want it as a pet, I want to help it."
Once more the conversation was interrupted as Willow could be seen running into view. In her arms was another atrociously colored material, this one a hideous radioactive green. Whatever region of the redhead's mind that dictated good sense had clearly checked out for the day, and she smiled expectantly at her latest discovery. Tara's eyes widened at the sight, and she shook her head back and forth in tiny, almost fearful motions. Her bottom lip jutting out, Willow visibly deflated but hurried back to the shop.
"Whoa," Dawn breathed, "bridesmaid flashback."
But the momentary disruption had already passed, and Tara focused on more important matters. "What's wrong with the bird?"
Returning to work on her shake, the teenager explained, "I've been watching it for days. Not a whole lot else to do under house arrest, you know? It's up in the tree outside my room, and ..." She glanced up at Tara, simultaneously certain and unsure. "... and it needs someone to take care of it."
"Well that's what mama birds are for," the blonde replied with a gentle smile. "She'll take care of it."
"That's just it, she's not." There was the faintest hint of accusation in Dawn's voice. "I keep watching and waiting, but the mother's not coming." Her expression became one of determination. "It's crying for her and she just won't come back. Someone has to help it."
Both pairs of eyes drifted back to the window as Willow reappeared. This time she had two bolts of material, one in each arm. She nodded to the first, a sky blue color, then motioned with her chin at Tara. The second was a dark purple, and after lifting this fabric, she raised her eyebrows. Her meaning was clear – ‘this one for you, that one for me'.
Dawn watched Willow's pantomime then, tucking a stray lock of her hair behind her ear, leaned over to enjoy more of the shake. "We all need a little help sometimes, you know?"
Tara tilted her head to one side and, with a smile, nodded her approval at the selections. Willow's face split into a grin, and she hurried back toward the fabric shop. The blonde watched her leave, still smiling, then regarded Dawn once more. "But the mama bird might come back for it, Dawnie," she pointed out.
The possibility was given due consideration, but Dawn eventually shook her head. "I don't think so," she replied. "When moms leave, they don't come back."
Giles observed Buffy as she lay sprawled out on her couch, one arm thrown over her eyes. He leaned forward in Xander's chair, looking for the moment not unlike a psychiatrist with a patient. Certainly, his concern was similar.
"You should relax. Too much stress is bad for your blood pressure." Mostly to himself he added, "Believe me, after eight years of dealing with you lot, I've become something of an authority on the matter."
Raising her arm, Buffy rolled her head to one side, regarding Giles with a flat expression. "Relax. We have unknown people out there somewhere trying to kill Willow. We have absolutely no idea who they are or how to make them stop. There are super-strong girls just waltzing in the front door and continuing with our ‘who the hell are you?' theme. We get our asses handed to us by a block of concrete with feet and when we go back to dish out some serious payback, we find he's already dead, so I don't even get that satisfaction. And to top it all off, my little sister has mystery headaches without an apparent source and I can not stress how much I hate mystery headaches." Obviously feeling she'd said all she needed say on the matter, Buffy allowed her arm to fall again, shielding her eyes from the outside world.
The Watcher took in all this impassively. "Yes, well, I did advise against too much stress, I didn't suggest you eliminate it entirely."
Drink in hand, Xander entered from the kitchen. "We'll sort it, Buffy," he encouraged. Without looking, Buffy raised her feet from the end cushion, and Xander settled into the now vacant spot. Almost immediately she plonked her feet back down again in his lap, remaining otherwise motionless.
Xander took this in as par for the course and he smoothly continued in his efforts to improve Buffy's dark mood. "We just gotta take it one step at a time. It's like building a house, or a new high school on top of a Hellmouth. Sure, it all looks really scary and imposing at first when you just look at it big picture, but when you break it down, it's not so bad." He shrugged before adding, "Well, apart from the Hellmouth part. That pretty much stays scary."
"What I presume Xander's trying to say," Giles translated with a sigh, "is that while there are some undeniably worrisome issues at hand, fretting over all of them constantly only muddies the waters."
Buffy gestured with her hand, although her arm stayed in place. "So un-muddy them. I'm all for clean, suitable-for-swimming waters. Make me fret-free, please."
"Well, there's ... there's the mark," began the Watcher, forcing his tone to become light and almost optimistic. "The eye marking that was present on both Tara and Judith. We have some more information on that front."
Peering out from underneath her limp appendage, a pleased Buffy regarded Giles hopefully. "You know what it is?"
"No, not at such," he confessed. As the blonde groaned lightly and her eyes disappeared from sight again, Giles hastened to put a positive spin on the information. "B-But we do know that there is no mention of it at all in any texts both the Watchers Council and the Covens have researched."
"And that's yay?" inquired Xander uncertainly.
Settling back into the chair Giles answered, "Well it helps narrow the field somewhat. Given the amount of power clearly at their disposal, it's extremely unlikely they are new. We've thoroughly researched back through the past 500 years with no success, and between the two groups, we're covering remarkable ground. So this person or- or persons is—"
"Is really powerful and really old," Buffy summarized in her own words. "That's always a recipe for fun. Oh yeah, feelin' better already."
The Watcher appeared slightly crestfallen. "We're still looking," he pointed out in meek defense.
Not much in the mood for the giving of comfort so much as the receipt of same, Buffy moved to the next item on her agenda of disquiet. "What about Power Girl, anything?"
Quiet fell over the room as Giles and Xander exchanged a glance that Buffy was voluntarily too blind to see.
"Since her attack," Giles began with some reluctance, "there's been no sign of her. Anywhere. It's as though she disappeared."
If the news was meant to be reassuring, it failed miserably. "But she said she'd be back, right?" The Slayer didn't wait for an answer. "And when bad guys say that, they have an alarming tendency to mean it."
"So we'll be ready for her," responded Xander without hesitation, then hastily amending, "Or, well, you guys'll be ready for her. I'll be ready with quippy remarks and upbeat commentary." Grabbing one of Buffy's feet in both hands, he gave it an enthusiastic and encouraging shake. "But here's a thought that'll lighten the Buffy brainload: Dawn's headaches. Have you considered that maybe they're just ... y'know, headaches?"
The blonde lifted her arm and leveled a dubious look at her friend.
"I'm serious," he defended. "You insisted the doctors do every test under the sun ... I think we have roadmaps for every inch of Dawn's brain now. They didn't find anything wrong. The Wonder Wiccas did their magickal vanderwhatsit test—"
"Ven Dentro," Giles corrected with a long-suffering sigh. "Honestly, I do wish you'd at least try to remember these things."
Not bothering to correct himself, Xander was content with waving in the Watcher's direction. "They did that thing, and still nothing."
Jumping in, the Watcher added, "Should Dawn experience another headache, we'll want to cast the spell at that time." More gently, he again tried to quiet his Slayer's anxiety. "However it's been over a week and she's had no more attacks."
"Which brings us back to the ‘just a headache' theory," reinforced Xander, resuming control of the conversation. "My cousin Carol, her second ..." His brows furrowed in thought. "Or was it third?" Shaking his head, he dismissed the detail. "Anyway, one of Carol's extensive trail of in-laws has headaches too. Really bad ones, knocks her out of commission for a day or two at a time. But they're just headaches, that's it."
Buffy continued to fix Xander with an unblinking gaze. "When has ‘that's it' ever explained anything that happens to us?"
Neither man seemed to have a response to that, and both were saved from trying by the front door opening and a conversation-in-progress drifted into the living room.
"—little bits of parchment a-and – oh! Amulets! Little fake ones, with faux-mystic symbols! We can make up stuff that they mean an' everything!" Willow eyed Dawn enthusiastically as she slipped out of her coat.
Dawn's own excitement was building to match the redhead's. "This'll be so cool!"
Upon hearing Dawn's voice, Buffy leapt to her feet and quickly appeared in the entranceway. She gave Dawn a quick but thorough mental evaluation as the three women deposited bags – including one rather large one from "Fabric World" that Willow was carrying – and their other items by the door.
"You okay?" Buffy asked her sister, unable to entirely hide her concern.
Dawn rolled her eyes a little, but smiled regardless. "Yeah, just fine."
"Nope, none at all."
"She didn't even get an ice cream headache," Tara supplied. She nudged the teenager playfully with her shoulder. "Though I think I got one just watching her."
"It was good, okay?" retorted Dawn. "And Willow did say to get two."
Reclaiming her bag, Dawn entered the living room. She smiled greetings to Xander and Giles, then settled on the floor with her purchases. Buffy followed and hovered nearby, reaching out to stroke the teenager's hair. "Good," she said affectionately. "I strongly cast my vote for no pain."
"Mm, me too," Dawn readily agreed.
Reaching into the shopping bag, Dawn extricated a box containing the birdcage along with a package of seed, some plastic cups, a little mirror and assorted bird toys.
Resting his forearms on his knees, Xander looked at the array of items littering the carpet. "I miss the meeting where we inducted a new Scooby?"
"It's for the baby bird outside," was the simple reply.
Buffy exchanged a look with Giles. "Dawn," she began gently, "you can't—"
"—can't keep a wild bird as a pet. I know." She critically examined a string of beads designed to hang from the ceiling of the cage as she further explained. "Its mom abandoned it, so I'm going to help it get strong, and then I'm letting it go free."
Glancing over to Tara, seated on the opposite end of the couch from Xander, Dawn received a proud smile and nod. Happily, she pried the cage box open and began pulling out assorted bits of plastic and wire.
Xander's eye lit up with delight. "Oo! Some assembly required! My favorite words. Right up there with ‘no payments for 90 days' and ‘now in a fresh pine scent'." He quickly got to his feet and joined Dawn on the floor. "Mind some help?"
Scooting back out of the way, Dawn gestured at the messy pile. "All yours."
Grinning like a little boy, Xander began happily sifting through the pieces. Willow joined the group, her laptop tucked under one arm, and after a glance at the couch, settled on the safety of Xander's recently vacated cushion. She balanced the laptop on her knees and waited semi-patiently as it began to boot, drumming her fingers lightly on the keys.
Tara spied a sheet of paper on the floor by her feet and leaned over to pick it up. Glancing at it curiously for a second, she then handed it to Xander, who examined it scornfully. "Instructions?" he scoffed. "We don't need no stinkin' instructions!"
With that, he wadded up the page and tossed it over his shoulder, where it sailed right for Giles. Bobbing his head back and forth, Giles lined up and then, with expert skill, hit the paper ball precisely sending it flying through the air before landing cleanly into the discarded bag nearby.
"Yes!" the Watcher hissed, then abruptly straightened as he realized he'd attracted the attention of the entire room – save Xander, who was frowning in confusion at the birdcage pieces. "I'm not supposed to engage in any physical activities outside of being a punching bag for Slayers?" he asked defensively.
Xander ignored the question as he tried to smoosh together a couple of errant parts without success.
Rather than the expected mocking, Buffy seemed to regard the older man with a new respect. "Nice shot, Giles."
"Way impressed," agreed Willow. "Didn't touch the sides or anything."
"I bet you play soccer really well, Mr. Giles," Tara smiled supportively.
Puffing up just a tad, Giles responded, "Well, I don't like to blow my own trumpet, so to speak, but back in my Oxford days I—"
A piece of birdcage fluttered in front of his face, cutting off any further reminiscing. "Man at work here, people!" Xander exclaimed. "Could we cut the chit-chat?"
Giles huffed loudly, but Willow soon reclaimed the group's attention. "I've been looking up some stuff, on rehabilitation?" she began. "What kinda bird did you say it was, Dawnie?"
"I did some checking." Rising from the floor, the teenager relocated herself to the couch between Willow and Tara. She leaned over to see the computer screen properly. "I'm pretty sure it's a wren."
Surreptitiously, Xander fished the balled-up page of instructions out of the bag. As nonchalantly as possible, he smoothed it out, then glanced around, pleased that no one had spotted him. No one besides Tara. His expression registered panic for a second, then became sheepish and he shrugged. Tara grinned in response before shaking her head and directing her attentions to the ongoing quest for knowledge. Deeply engrossed, Willow continued typing away as Dawn leaned over her shoulder. Even Buffy approached, curious to learn what would be uncovered.
"Wrens, wrens ..." The hacker muttered to herself, as her eyes scanned the screen. "Oh, hey, look, that's interesting." Everyone, except Xander, waited for the inevitable follow-up to that statement. "Lot of stuff on the wren here ... There's a- a legend and a rhyme and everything."
"A legend?" Tara inquired with interest.
A response was not immediate as Willow continued reading for several seconds. "Yeah ..." she finally replied, dragging out the word. "'Hunting the Wren'. Apparently they ... ew." Crinkling her nose in disgust, the redhead shot an accusing look at an innocent, unsuspecting Giles. "What is with you?"
Giles could only stare in confusion. "I'm sorry?"
"You English, with- with your hanging and your quartering, and your big chopping block, and- and I'm sorry, but dunking witches is just plain wrong!"
A long moment of silence passed. Everyone joined Giles in staring at Willow now. Even Xander, his project momentarily forgotten.
Willow's gaze darted from one person to the next. "And I clearly have some underlying issues which are irrelevant at the moment, so moving on," she declared, busying herself with the laptop.
Dawn, too, was ready to return to more important matters. "What was that about hunting a wren? They're so cute. Why don't they hunt vultures or something, cuz ... hello, vulture."
So eager was the teenager to see the information Willow had retrieved, she was practically crawling into the redhead's lap. "Okay, crowded now," announced an obviously uncomfortable Willow as she shoved the computer into Dawn's awaiting hands.
Meanwhile, Buffy had drifted back to Giles' side. "Do you think this is a good idea?" she asked in a low voice. "I mean, a wild bird belongs in the wild, right?"
"Ordinarily I'd agree, but if its mother truly has abandoned it, we may be its only hope for survival."
"Our booth!" Willow's sudden outburst to Tara interrupted Giles and Buffy's quiet conversation and they both turned toward her. "We haven't told you about our booth! There's a Renaissance festival coming, and we were thinking about all of us getting a booth, where we could dress up and sell little baubles and trinkets and Tara's gonna wear this big princess hat with long ribbons and—"
"I am?" Tara questioned with a quirked eyebrow, her tone indicating this latest costume development was clearly news to her.
Yet another conversation was brought to a screeching halt as Xander leapt to his feet. From the hanging loop at the top, he held the birdcage aloft triumphantly. "Behold!" announced the carpenter in a bold voice. "Man once again has conquered his natural enemy: the instructions written only in Chinese."
Xander awaited the inevitable high praise and accolades with calm, patient certainty. The tiny swing fell to the bottom of the cage. A perch soon followed it. Then the entire bottom fell off. Xander stared at the half-cage still in his grasp. "Excuse me one moment," he requested, dropping once more to the carpet.
Seemingly unphased, Dawn poked at the monitor screen. "Guys, listen to this: ‘As little Jenny Wren was sitting by the shed, she waggled with her tail, and nodded with her head.'"
"Oh, I remember this!" Buffy returned to the edge of the couch as the memory resurfaced. "‘She waggled with her tail, and nodded with her head ...'"
Both Summers sisters joined in for the final line. "'As little Jenny Wren was sitting by the shed.'" Their recitation complete, Buffy and Dawn shared a broad grin.
Willow was less impressed. "Sorta repetitive there," she critiqued.
"But nice," Tara quickly added. "What's it from?"
"It's a nursery rhyme. Mom used to read it to Dawn when she was little," the Slayer explained.
A frown appeared on Dawn's features. "I don't remember," she confessed.
"You were really little," responded Buffy, attempting to alleviate any guilt on her sister's part. She happily pointed out, "You liked it a lot, though. That one was your favorite. That, and ‘Ring Around a Rosie'."
"Ah. Happy little rhyme, fun with the Black Plague." Willow shot another accusing look at Giles, who rolled his eyes and didn't bother to dignify the implied charge with a defense.
"What else does it say, Dawnie?" Tara prompted before Willow could lay further blame for England's dark history on the Watcher.
"Well there's this ‘Hunting the Wren' stuff, which is ... really not as fun." Dawn readjusted the laptop comfortably and began to read. "'The Wren Boys. Youths in England who armed themselves with birch rods to hunt down and kill a wren, whose little corpse was then paraded through the local village while the boys sang: ‘We hunted the Wren for Robin the Bobbin, we hunted the Wren for Jack of the Can, we hunted the Wren for Robin the Bobbin, we hunted the Wren for every man.'"
A thick silence blanketed the room.
Tara spoke first. "I-I liked the first one better," she admitted.
Thrusting the laptop back at Willow, Dawn rose to her feet. "Well no one's hunting this wren, and that's that," she decisively declared. Taking Buffy by the hand, she tugged the Slayer toward the door. "Now come help me find the ladder."
The group had reassembled on the back porch, partly enjoying the pleasant day but mostly gathering to watch Dawn's rescue techniques. Buffy stood at the closest edge of the porch and looked none too happy to be there, judging by the restless manner in which she constantly fidgeted. Her arms were crossed and her eyes locked unflinchingly at something in the distance. Dawn herself was nowhere in sight, however the sounds of metal clanging and scraping against something in the yard indicated the ladder had been found and was being put to good use.
Giles stood nearby, leaning back against one of the support posts. Nowhere near as apprehensive as Buffy, he alternated his attentions between Dawn's tree-climbing adventures and this latest manifestation of his Slayer's protective streak. Tara also watched Dawn's progress while swaying back and forth gently on the large swing. Laying claim to one of the patio chairs, Willow continued to search for information on her laptop, while Xander had procured the other, as well as the table. The birdcage, still stubbornly refusing to remain assembled, was scattered across its surface.
Now feeling much less jovial about his wire-and-plastic nemesis, Xander grumbled darkly to himself. "Stupid thing. I could've built one from scratch by now." He snorted bitterly. "'Some assembly required'. For a birdcage."
Next to him, Willow continued reading her computer display. "It'll tick ya off if I take it an' put it together, right?" she asked without glancing over.
"More than words can express," he confirmed.
The redhead nodded. "'kay then."
"How's the research?" asked Tara, dragging her feet backward along the ground then forward again.
"Coming along. If it's really little, though, seeds won't do it much good. We'll need to get an eyedropper, and here's a very appealing baby food/dog food/bug paste we can feed it."
The blonde wrinkled her nose. "Yum."
As the sounds of Dawn making her ascent reached Buffy's hearing, she shifted nervously. "I wish she'd let me get it."
Giles smiled, though whether at Dawn's stubbornness or Buffy's behavior remained unclear. "She seems quite determined to do as much of this as she can on her own."
"Great. I'll be proud of her when she's back on the ground without a broken anything."
"Well I'd say she ..." The Watcher's words trailed off and he blinked at the large tree dominating the yard. A shimmer had appeared around the crown of the tree, a sort of whitish-green glint reminiscent of heat radiating from a stretch of desert highway. Tugging off his glasses, Giles squinting at the branches, but he could no longer see anything out of the ordinary.
"Did you see that?" he asked Buffy.
"See what?" the blonde replied in distracted tone, her entire focus still locked on Dawn.
"Hm." Giles replaced his glasses and scrutinized the tree once more, but still could see nothing peculiar. "Must've been a trick of the light," he concluded to himself.
Buffy didn't respond, she simply continued to watch. Then suddenly her eyes widened. "She's gonna fall." There was no question in the Slayer's voice, it was a certainty, and without hesitation, Buffy took off at a dead run toward the tree. Giles was but a few moments behind.
Tara stood from the swing as Willow and Xander looked up, alarmed. The blonde witch's eyes became distant, as she moved to the edge of the porch. Her gaze locked on the tree as her eyebrows furrowed questioningly at surrounding shimmer.
"I see it too, Mr. Giles," she whispered.
Dawn hit the ground with a sickening thud and waited for the world to stop spinning like the wheel of a demented hamster. Gingerly, she probed the lump forming on the back of her head and breathed a sigh of relief. No blood and, as far as she could tell, no broken bones either. She sat immobile for another moment or two, expecting Buffy's "I told you so," at any minute, but it never materialized. Dawn breathed a sigh of relief. "Good, they didn't see me fall."
She scrambled to her feet, brushing twigs and stray leaves from her jeans, and trod carefully around the area, growing increasingly worried as she searched for the nest. She peered up into the tree and cocked her head, listening intently for the sound of chirping but none came.
"Maybe it managed to fly away," she muttered, then raised her voice and called over her shoulder, "Did anyone see where it went?" She waited for the expected chorus of responses, but there was only silence. Irritated, she spun around on her heel. "I said—"
The words died in her throat. No house. She blinked and rubbed at her eyes. Still no house. "Weird," she whispered, looking around. "Where'd the house go?" She stood, not moving, as if waiting for it reappear when her ears caught the sound of a small chirrup.
Dawn whirled and scanned the nearby trees, but the sun hung low in the sky and cast shades of gray, which made it difficult to see. She concentrated upon the ground at her feet and focused all her attention on the noises surrounding her. Leaves rustling in the light breeze, the ripple of a small stream somewhere nearby, a vague faraway tune being strummed upon some type of stringed instrument. And a tiny cheep. Then another, but growing fainter now as though its owner were moving on.
The soles of Dawn's shoes crunched on the gravel path as she quickly followed the chirping. A figure, indistinct save for the scarlet cap that stood out against the dark green foliage, emerged between the trees some distance away. Dawn realized it was from this shadowy form that the melody carried by the breeze earlier had originated. Stepping forward, Dawn opened her mouth to address the musician, but he then appeared to blend into the wooded backdrop and vanish from sight, although the lilt of his strings lingered a while longer.
A sharp tweet caused Dawn to turn her head and she looked around hopefully, but it was not the little wren. Instead, a bright-eyed robin regarded her cheekily from atop a signpost. Pecking at the wood until it managed to break off a sizeable splinter, it then took flight. "Slayer Bird," Dawn reflected. "Probably off to stake a bat or something." As she watched the sky, several more birds flew from the treetops, in the direction the robin had taken. The teenager nodded her approval. "Just as well there's more than one. Robin needs to roost and the bats are so much bigger these days."
Turning her attention back to the signpost, she peered more closely at the message carved there. "This Way to the Renaissance Festival," it read. The arrow only pointed one way and seemed to offer no other choice. She frowned at the direction for a moment, casting a dubious glance down the path, when a small and almost imperceptible tweet beyond the sign cemented Dawn's decision.
She shivered slightly as she moved deeper into the forest. The sun, such as was, barely penetrated the thick ceiling of leaves and heavy boughs. Even the path was steadily becoming obliterated in a tangle of sinewy vines and curling tendrils. "Guess nobody's ever come this way before," she murmured to herself.
As though in answer, the strains of a now-familiar melody reached her ears. Looking up, Dawn caught a flash of buttercup yellow in the distance – a cap perched upon the head of an otherwise indistinct figure. "Hello?" the teenager called. Her voice echoed back to her in an eerie fashion. "Who are you? Do I know you?" But the musician had vaporized without so much as a word. She stuck out her chin defiantly. "Fine, be like that. I know me."
Determined, she scaled a fallen log blocking the pathway. Once across, the vines before her grew thinner and the gravel peeked through in a comforting manner. Within a few yards, Dawn found herself at the brink of a clearing. A cheery banner floated just ahead, suspended between two tall, upright poles. "We bid you welcome to the Renaissance Festival," the message announced. Someone had scrawled, "Huzzah!" along the bottom in felt-tip pen.
Dawn skipped with excitement to be almost out of the woods and hurried toward the entrance to the festival. "Maybe Willow's booth is up. Willow and Tara will help me find the bird. I bet they know just the right spell to make everything better."
Reaching the turnstile, she pushed hard but it stubbornly refused to budge. She tried again.
"Hey!" challenged an indignant voice from the nearby kiosk marked 'Pay Here.' "No getting in without a ticket!"
Backing up, Dawn peered into the depths of the dark little cubicle. A finger emerged and jabbed pointedly at the sign above the kiosk. "Look. See? It says 'Pay Here,' and that's what you do. Pay. Here. No getting in without paying." An upturned palm was then extended, followed immediately by a frowning face.
A curious expression crossed Dawn's features as a glint of recognition appeared in her eyes.
The figured smiled broadly, but with no indication of likewise awareness, simply the joyful anticipation of monetary gain. The palm was extended further. "We also take MasterCard and Visa," Dawn was informed brightly, followed by a purse of the lips and a heavy sigh. "Oh, sorry." The tone, however, was far from apologetic. "I'm supposed to say 'Master of the Card' and 'Lady Visa'." Eyes rolled in Dawn's direction, but still the expectant hand did not waver.
Dawn continued to simply stare in disbelief.
"Well?" came the demand, accompanied by an annoyed shake of the outstretched – and as yet, still notably empty – palm.
Something was wrong. Horribly wrong. The teenager's pale face spoke volumes.
"Feeling sick?" came the hopeful query. "We've got wonderful First Aid facilities. Inside. Just look for the Apothecary Shoppe. All you have to do is pay to get in." The figure nodded encouragingly.
Dawn swallowed hard and somehow managed to get her vocal chords working again.
Anya eyed Dawn with much suspicion. "Just because you know my name doesn't mean you get in for free," she told the teenager sternly. "You could have read it in the program: 'Anya, Keeper of the Coin and Lady-In-Waiting to the Queen'. Not that I'm too happy about that last part, nice as the Queen might be." Suddenly, Anya's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Wait, you have a program? Did you pay for it?"
With a brisk shake of her head, Dawn denied the very suggestion and spread her arms wide, showing them to be empty and program-free. "Well then," Anya continued, gesturing grandly to the stack of booklets on the narrow counter, "you can purchase one here. When you buy a ticket." She smiled brightly in anticipation.
Dawn's mouth opened and closed silently, unsure of how to respond, when a figure suddenly appeared from around the side of the entrance booth. "Giles!" Dawn exclaimed with a sigh of tangible relief.
"Anya," stated Giles reprovingly, tucking his clipboard under one arm, "didn't we discuss how to be courteous to patrons?"
"They're only patrons when they pay," she pointed out, glaring at Dawn.
Giles shook his head in desperation and turned to the teenager with an encouraging smile. "Have you come to enjoy an afternoon of medieval delight? O-Or are you here to sign-up as a performer?" He held up his clipboard and ran a forefinger down the list held there. "Several people haven't checked in yet. Perhaps you're one of those?"
"I'm Dawn," the teenager replied simply.
"A volunteer, perhaps?" Giles continued. Taking note of Dawn's confusion, he flipped to another page and scanned the length of the list. "No ‘Dawn' listed here," he regretfully informed.
Anya beamed and once more thrust out her hand, jerking her head at the ‘Pay Here' sign.
At Dawn's deflated expression, Giles stepped between the teenager and Anya, blocking the latter from view and ignoring the irritated "Hey!" that followed. "Perhaps you'd like to take a look around inside?" he suggested. "A brief tour? Help you decide whether you'd like to take part?"
"She can take a look around when she pays!" an indignant voice came from behind him, causing Giles to shoot a glance of pure irritation over his shoulder.
"You know the Queen wouldn't want to charge for a brief tour," he insisted, his tone of voice making it clear the matter was closed. There were bitter, unhappy rumblings emanating from the booth, but no further complaints, and Giles turned back to the teenager with a smile.
"I'm looking for the wren," Dawn told him. "I think it's lost."
Giles nodded encouragingly. "Many birds to be found in the Sherwood Forest area," he suggested. "Perhaps you'll find it there."
With that, Giles buried his head once more in the clipboard and returned the way he had appeared from around the corner of the booth. Dawn took one step after him, then cast a worried eye at the kiosk. She needn't have been concerned, however – Anya was holding the money pouch next to her ear and jingling it in time to a beat heard only in the woman's head. Her eyes were closed in an expression of pure pleasure, and she no longer seemed bothered with, or even aware of Dawn's presence.
The teenager seized the opportunity to slip through the small gap at the side of the booth.
"Which way is—" she began as she emerged on the other side, but Giles had disappeared, presumably having gone through one of the three arches cut into a rampart of granite. A trio of heralds sat atop the lofty wall. They appeared bored and their clarions dangled idly in their hands, as though waiting for the command to blow a trump. They ignored Dawn as she entered the festival's marbled forecourt through the center arch.
She was immediately met by a combination of intriguing sights and delicious aromas. She noticed the Apothecary Shoppe mentioned by Anya on her right, but a sign on the door informed her that "The Doctor Is Out." Directly across from the Apothecary Shoppe was the Sheriff's Sentry Box. Several of the guards, dressed in bright navy doublets and sporting crossbows, lounged outside. The group stood to attention and saluted as a tall, dark-skinned man rounded a corner. None of them paid Dawn any mind.
She stared at all the hawkers peddling their wares: a baker with a large tray of sultana muffins hanging around his neck; a youth offering spiced doughnuts which he held out on a sturdy pole; and a young woman, her blonde hair arranged in tight ringlets and attired in a low-cut gown which showed far too much of her ample bosom, apparently willing to sell kisses if the price was right. Dawn blinked at the confusion and seemed to be wondering which direction she should take. Then, she noticed a signpost at the far edge of the forecourt that read: "This Way to the Market Square." The arrow pointed toward a planked sidewalk. It appeared to be the only choice available to her.
Dawn meandered along the wooden street of makeshift stores displaying their merchandise. With wide eyes, she maneuvered through the sizable crowds, admiring the almost innumerable treasures available at every turn. She peered with wonder at stained glass light catchers, accepted free samples of roasted nuts, and politely declined an offer extended by one merchant to enter his establishment and fondle his baubles.
Deeply engrossed in the marvels of the festival, Dawn nearly collided with a man in feudal costume, obviously meant to be some type of peasant. A brown rat was perched on his shoulder, twitching its whiskers curiously. Dawn was equally as curious and wriggled a finger in the rodent's direction. The twitchy creature scrabbled around the serf's neck and perched warily on the other shoulder. Startled, Dawn took a step backward as the man offered the rat a wedge of cheese. The peasant regarded the teenager from behind his thick spectacles.
"Can you aid me, fair lady?" he questioned. "This used to be my daughter until she was turned into a rat by an evil sorceress." He blinked back the tears. Shaking her head apologetically, Dawn was nearly sent sprawling to the ground by the sudden appearance of a figure shrouded in a heavy cloak of black wool.
"Looking for help, mate— I mean, my good man?" inquired the new arrival. The teenager turned and then gaped as the hood slipped to reveal a shock of platinum hair. A hand thrust past bearing a small card that read: 'William, Seeker of Fortune. Have halberd will travel. No job too small or too large.' The blond mercenary winked at the teenager before turning his attention to the peasant. "Come on. Wossit gonna be? Got places to go."
The man beckoned the blond to one side. "It's all part of the act," he whispered, indicating the rat, which was now squeaking repeatedly – either with delight or disgust, it was difficult to tell – as it sniffed at the cheese held between its tiny paws. "This isn't really my daughter."
"Really," William replied in flat voice. "Because the resemblance is uncanny."
He snatched the card from the serf's fingers and began to saunter away, his long cloak dragging in the dust. He crossed to a tavern, presumably known as 'The Shining Son' given its swaying sign, and disappeared into the sea of bodies milling around the entrance.
With an expression of total confusion, Dawn looked up and down the wooden walkway. Her eyes widened with appreciation when she noticed a beautiful square-necked dress of dark green velvet suspended from a hook outside one of the stalls. Peeking inside, she was greeted with a magnificent array of appropriate clothing – gowns with flowing trumpet sleeves and waistcoats sporting elaborate embroidery. Noting her interest, the proprietress stepped forward. She herself was attired impeccably for the period, even down to the tiny red rosebuds woven into her dark hair. With a bright smile, she unhooked the green gown and held it up in front of Dawn. "Absolutely perfect," she murmured with confidence. "With this dress, you'll have every boy falling at your feet."
Dawn admired her reflection in a nearby mirror. "You think so?" she asked hopefully.
"Trust me," the brunette assured, "I should know. You'll have to chase them away."
Running a hand down the rich material the teenager beheld her image, clearly liking what she saw. The indulgent moment was soon over, however, and Dawn's expression crumpled. "I don't have any money," she told the shopkeeper with deep regret.
Instantly, the gown was whipped away and the women returned it to the hook. "It looks better on me anyway," she said scornfully, and then busied herself with ignoring Dawn's presence altogether.
Dejectedly, Dawn slunk out of the shop and resumed her walk. She soon came to a colorful tent positioned atop a tiny hillock in the middle of the common ground. There was no sign by the entrance, although she could hear a vague melody being played by violins emanating from within. Crossing the grass, she lifted the flap and looked inside. A crystal ball sat in the center of a small table, together with a deck of tarot cards. A small kettle bubbled cheerfully upon the hob. A curtain of sparkling glass beads separated the front of the tent from the rear and Dawn frowned. The size of the interior seemed to belie its outward appearance. She ducked back outside to check on the dimensions.
"That's where the fortune-teller will set up," Giles told her, appearing suddenly at her side. "But she – or- or he, I suppose," he added as an afterthought. "I've never actually met them, and men and women aren't quite as constrained as they once were, are they?" He chuckled at the thought, but quickly moved on. "At any rate, the fortune-teller hasn't arrived yet."
"But," protested Dawn, pointing at the tent, "they must have. There's a kettle boiling in there."
"Are you sure?" asked Giles, pulling back the flap to check. He glanced at the interior. It was woefully bare. No crystal ball, no deck of cards, no bubbling kettle, no beaded curtain – no anything.
The teenager blinked as she stared at the empty tent. "It was full of stuff just now."
Giles lowered the tent flap without further consideration. "Have you found your bird yet?" he inquired.
Dawn's eyes grew wide. "I ... I forgot I was looking for it."
Giles nodded sagely as he polished his glasses. "The memory is a tricky thing. Not necessarily reliable." A crease formed on his forehead as he watched Dawn hurry away. "Don't get lost," he cautioned, replacing his glasses firmly upon his nose and marching off again, studying the clipboard intently.
Dawn's search was interrupted by the sounds of vigorous hammering. The worker whistled happily as he plied his trade and a sigh of relief escaped Dawn's lips as she recognized the carpenter.
"Xander," she called delightedly as she hurried toward him. He turned and treated her to a broad grin. She returned his smile and looked into his eyes. There was a brief moment of confusion as she realized there were indeed two of them but the puzzlement was fleeting and slipped away as quickly as it had arrived. "What you doing?"
"Building a stage," he told her, fishing out another nail and banging it into place. "It's for the dancing troupe, so gotta be solid." With his fist, he pounded on the planks he'd nailed together and nodded with satisfaction when they held firm. "Can't have it collapsing, ‘specially not while the Queen's in the audience."
"The Queen?" queried Dawn. "The Queen's coming to watch?"
"Oh, yeah," confirmed an enthusiastic Xander. "She's a great lover of the arts."
"I'd like to meet her," the teenager pondered thoughtfully. "Maybe I could wait here? Until she comes?"
The carpenter shook his head ruefully. "Sorry, no performance today." With that, he returned to the stage, glancing over when he noticed that Dawn hadn't left yet. "So," he broached in a casual, friendly manner. "You're part of the festival?" Tipping his head to one side, he considered her with some curiosity. "Just a visitor?"
"I'm Dawn," she responded.
"Ahhh," replied Xander, nodding sagely. "I should've known that." He contemplated this new information for a moment and smiled at the teenager. "It's a nice name," he concluded.
Dawn looked a little embarrassed, but pleased. Still, Xander wore a puzzled expression. "Not sure why you're here, though," he confessed. Then a thought occurred, and he snapped his fingers together. "You're one of the serving wenches, right?" When Dawn didn't immediately disagree, Xander took this as confirmation. "Thought so. ‘The Food Court' is over that way—" He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "—an' you can pick up your costume there too."
Dawn gazed in the direction he indicated for a moment and then her attention returned to Xander. "I'm looking for the wren," she informed him.
The carpenter had returned to his hammer. "Got some nice pieces of wood left over," he mumbled through a mouthful of nails. "Be happy to make a cage for your wren – if you find it, of course. Just let me know."
The conversation apparently at an end, Dawn wandered off in the direction she had been pointed. Around the construction area, the crowds had been thin, but the closer Dawn came to ‘The Food Court', the greater the throngs of people. Picnic tables had been arranged in the center of a giant ‘U'-shape, where food items of all types were being sold from vendors singing out their wares and trying their utmost to be heard over the excited, noisy chatter that infused the area.
"I want one as big as what everybody else got," whined a young blond man standing in front of a stall labeled 'King Henry's Drumsticks.' Dawn stared at the man's back and frowned as he waved a turkey leg in the air. "Or a refund," he persisted. "I shouldn't have to pay the same for something smaller." His objections were obviously falling on deaf ears, and he began to pout in a disgruntled and thoroughly ineffectual manner.
Nearly overwhelmed, Dawn looked anxiously around the area. Her discomfort lessened as she spied a girl pushing her way firmly through the crowd while balancing four half-coconuts in her hands. "Meghan," breathed Dawn as she followed the figure to a sturdy table flanked by two wooden benches.
"Could've died of thirst while you been gone," griped Jackie as Meghan delivered the drinks.
"Then you go next time," replied an irritated Meghan. "The line was about a zillion miles long."
Brenda slowly dragged one of the coconuts toward her and peered inside.
"Piña colada," Meghan told her. "But don't worry, it's the non-alcoholic kind." She winked at Jackie and grinned mischievously.
Ginny stuffed a generous piece of funnel cake into her mouth and watched Dawn's approach. She waved a greeting and Dawn smiled happily.
"I saw you talking to that cute carpenter," Ginny remarked as soon as Dawn was within earshot. "What did he say?"
"Xander?" queried Dawn.
Ginny sighed. "Is that his name? It sounds so romantic."
"He's building a stage for the dancers," she told them. "Then he said he'd build me a birdcage." Her eyes grew wide. "The wren," she muttered angrily to herself. "I forgot again."
Turning, she hurried away. The girls watched for a moment.
"Takes all sorts, I suppose," commented Meghan with a shrug.
"I hope she finds what she's looking for," remarked Brenda, watching Dawn's retreat with some concern.
Jackie, meanwhile, was glaring bitterly at the empty plate sitting in the center of the table. "You ate the last piece of funnel cake," she accused, scowling at Ginny.
Ginny looked guilty, even as she tried without success to clean her dress of any evidence.
"So you get to get some more," Jackie declared, pointing toward the appropriate booth.
Ginny stared forlornly at the huge line in front of the 'Queen Anne's Lace' stall, where a young blond man was complaining bitterly about the abundance of powdered sugar that had been sprinkled on his confection.
Dawn had only just cleared 'The Food Court' area when she found herself back on the wooden walkway of the market square once more. A brightly painted banner to her right, decorated with small potion bottles and tiny spell scrolls, cheerfully announced that she had arrived at 'The Magick Shanty.' A hopeful smile crossed her lips as she entered the booth.
At the counter, dressed in a long skirt and ruched blouse of purple, Willow was sorting through a box of assorted stones. "Tiger-eye," she murmured, checking the item against her inventory before moving on. "Malachite ..." She glanced up to see Dawn hovering in the doorway and, smiling, gestured for the teenager to enter.
"Looking for an amulet?" Willow queried with a twinkle. "Or maybe a little enchantment?" She waved her hand around the shoppe. "Something to bring you good luck? We can help with that. Our motto is: ‘If you're lookin' for luck, then today's your lucky day!'" The redhead frowned as soon as the words left her mouth. "Which, upon reflection, is a pretty stupid motto, so best to just ignore it. I'll come up with another in a minute."
Tara was unable to suppress an amused laugh. Wearing a flowing blue gown complete with cone-shaped princess hat, she was deftly removing a small black-and-white kitten from a shelf where beribboned circlets had been stored. The cat took a final swipe at one of the headdresses and meowed its protest. Tara smiled indulgently as she placed it gently on the ground. It promptly pounced upon a cardboard container of parchment scrolls and began to paw at the silk strings with which they had been tied. Willow rolled her eyes, but grinned at the kitten's antics.
"May we help you?" Tara asked Dawn pleasantly. She moved to stand next to Willow, allowing her fingers to slip across the other woman's shoulder as she did so and earning her a fond smile in return.
"I think so," the teenager replied, then frowned. "I hope so."
Willow nodded her approval at the statement. "You should. Hope is good. Without hope, what've you got?"
"Despair," Tara replied.
"And where's the fun in that?" questioned Willow.
Glancing from one to the other, Dawn stated, "I'm looking for the wren."
The redhead looked up from her examination of a bright green polished stone with blackish green streaks. "Sounds dark," she observed with disapproval. "It's not dark, is it? Cuz we don't do dark here." She dropped the stone in the sorted pile with the others. "Big no to dark."
"I don't think it's dark," stated Tara with moderate assurance. "I think we'd know."
"Maybe, baby. Y'can't always be sure, though. Dark's a crafty thing. If you're not careful, it'll sneak right up and eat your soul." Willow rolled her eyes, obviously finding the prospect tedious as she added, "And those are so hard to replace."
Dawn shook her head, denying the conjecture. "It's not dark. It's just lost, and I have to find it."
Holding the unwieldy hat in place, the blonde tilted her head to one side and studied Dawn with interest. "Why?"
"It needs me." The reply was likely meant to be confident, but came out uncertain.
"Are you sure?" asked Tara in a gentle tone that suggested she already knew the answer.
Unflinchingly, Dawn stared, almost daring the blonde to refute her words. "Someone has to take care of it. It's just a baby."
Tara's answering smile was indulgent. "That's what mama birds are for," she countered.
"But it doesn't have a mom," insisted the teenager.
Chuckling, Willow glanced up from her inventory list and waved her pencil in the air. "Silly. Everything has a mom."
"Maybe the wren went to see the Queen?" suggested Tara, looking to Willow. Willow nodded a 'perhaps' and then glanced out to the crowded walkways. She wiggled her fingers in greeting at the young man standing there. He was holding a mandolin and sporting a cap of bright orange. He responded with a small smile, although he didn't return the wave.
Dawn, who appeared to have been ready to pose another question, changed her mind as she followed Willow's gaze. "I've seen him before," she said, her eyes darting from the musician to Willow. "Or, at least, someone who looks like him. His hat keeps changing."
The redhead nodded. "It's always him. He's the local bard. He comes and goes, but never really leaves." She grinned affectionately as the bard continued on his way. Her attention returned to Dawn and she frowned.
"You don't have a costume," she observed with some concern. "Maybe that's the problem. You stick out like a sore thumb."
Ruefully, the teenager agreed. "I found a really nice dress in a shop not far from here." She paused. "At least I don't think it was far from here. But the owner wanted me to buy it and I don't have any money." She grimaced at the recollection. "She said it looked better on her anyway."
Willow winced in sympathy. "Sounds about right."
Tara offered Dawn one of the circlets. It was adorned with emerald ribbons and tiny sprigs of lavender. "Here, take this so you won't feel so out of place," she urged. "We can't sell it now anyway since little miss kitty there destroyed some of the flowers." Willow nodded at Dawn encouragingly.
"Thanks," acknowledged Dawn with a smile. She glanced around, but was unable to find a mirror.
"I'll put it on for you." Willow beamed as she stepped from behind the counter and adjusted the headdress, fiddling with the position until she got it to her liking. She glanced at Tara and shot her a devilish smile. "Thirsty work," she said meaningfully.
Tara smirked at the complete lack of subtlety. "I'm not quite sure, but I'm guessing you want something?" With a toothy grin, Willow nodded rapidly, causing Tara to laugh aloud. "I'll be right back." she promised.
The blonde almost made it to the exit when Willow loudly cleared her throat causing Tara to turn around. "I think you're forgettin' somethin' there, missy," Willow chastised, very pointedly puckering her lips and jutting her chin forward.
Shooting Dawn a wry grin, Tara complied – dutifully but happily.
Willow gave a contented sigh. "I am fortified with goodbye smoochies," she proclaimed.
"Oh, good. Can't come back to find a wilted Willow," the blonde smirked from over her shoulder.
Dawn followed Tara as she left. The instant the blonde had safely passed out of Willow's sight, she ripped the hat from her head and shook out her hair. Breathing a huge sigh of relief, she dangled it by the strap.
"Don't you like wearing it?" asked Dawn.
The reply was a definite one. "No. I only do it to keep Willow happy." She smiled at Dawn and shrugged, as though to indicate a lack of any other viable option in the face of such things.
The teenager watched as the pale blue streamer attached to its apex trailed in the dust. "It's getting all dirty," she noted.
Tara glanced down. "Good excuse not to wear it," she replied before sighing deeply. "Though Willow will probably just want me to cut off the dirty part and put it back on." With a fond smile, she added, "Wouldn't do it for anyone else but her."
Together, they walked toward 'The Food Court'. The crowd had thinned since Dawn was there last. There was no sign of her four friends, although the blond man from earlier was now standing before the 'Sausage-On-A-Stick' stall, bemoaning the fact that his bratwurst had landed in an ant pile after the stick had unexpectedly broken before he'd even taken a single bite. Nobody seemed inclined to be sympathetic to his plight and the pair treated him to only a cursory glance.
With the reduced crowds, Dawn was able, for the first time, to get a decent look at the entire set-up. Almost immediately she noticed a darkened region beyond the perimeter of the banqueting area. Nothing could be seen beyond – no trees, no sky. Only a smoky black that appeared simultaneously to be both solid and tangible, while remaining indistinct and immaterial.
Only barely repressing a shudder, Dawn leaned toward Tara, who was studiously inspecting various menus in her pursuit of the perfect beverage. "What's out there?" the teenager whispered, as though raising her voice might somehow attract unwanted attention.
Tara followed Dawn's gaze. "I have no idea," she admitted casually. The fact didn't seem to worry her.
"Don't you ever leave?" queried Dawn, confused by Tara's lack of both reaction and information.
"Oh no," responded the blonde. "Why should I? Everything I need is right here." She smiled affectionately and then thought for a moment. "I believe the Queen sometimes leaves though."
The teenager's eyes grew wide. "You've seen the Queen?"
Tara nodded affirmatively. "Many times."
"Think I could get to see her?"
Tara's expression was tentative but Dawn pressed the point.
"I'd really like to meet her. Do you think I could meet her?"
"That's not for me to say," Tara told the teenager kindly, "but you maybe could find the answer there." She pointed over Dawn's shoulder. Glancing behind, the teenager spied the fortune-teller tent. She turned back to Tara, but the blonde had vanished.
Hesitantly, Dawn made her way to the small pavilion. A wooden sign driven into the ground was now displayed next to the flap. It was decorated with tiny horseshoes and four-leaf clovers and bore the title: 'Madame Kalderash'.
Lifting the flap of the tent, Dawn peered inside. The kettle had now been removed from the hob and two steaming mugs sat invitingly on the table. The tarot cards had been fanned out and there was a warm and expectant atmosphere. The teenager was about to enter when a head thrust itself through the opening and turned toward her.
"What are we looking for?" asked Buffy.
"The fortune-teller," replied Dawn without thinking.
There was a sharp, disdainful exhalation. "Fortune-teller?" Buffy repeated, withdrawing her head. "I don't believe in that stuff." She lifted an eyebrow at Dawn. "You shouldn't either. Fortune is for other people."
Dawn also emerged from the tent. "But fortune's also luck and stuff," she pointed out.
"Maybe that's for other people too."
"I don't believe that."
Buffy nodded, taking the teenager's denial in stride. "You get that purgative."
"Prerogative," Dawn corrected.
Nodding again, Buffy simply accepted the rectification, along with the scrutiny under which she now found herself. Dawn surveyed Buffy from tip to toe, checking out the gleaming armor of golden chainmail and the equally gleaming cap of blonde hair, which had been braided and coiled tightly around the skull. The teenager stifled a giggle.
"And what are you supposed to be?"
With a great deal of pride, Buffy puffed out her chest. "I am Buffy the Bold, Buffy the Brave. Protector of the Realm and Queen's Champion." Her pontification complete, she regarded Dawn coolly. "And you are ...?"
The teenager ignored the question, asking instead, "The Queen? You know the Queen?"
"Intimately," affirmed Buffy.
"Could you take me to see her?" asked Dawn hopefully.
Shaking her head, Buffy rejected the proposition. "Sorry, can't arrange that."
With a sigh, Dawn glanced over and noticed a figure hovering a few yards away. Enveloped in black steel plate, only his brooding eyes were visible through the visor of his helmet and they were focused intently on the blonde. Dawn frowned and motioned toward the loiterer.
"Who's that?" she queried uneasily.
Buffy turned. "Oh, that's the Dark Knight," she informed Dawn. "He likes to watch out for me, help protect me from stuff." She leaned closer and confided, "I don't need it, but I don't have the heart to tell him. Besides," she added with an excited grin, "isn't he a hottie?" Buffy waggled her eyebrows and straightened, once more regaining a semi-dignified air.
"Why is he all covered up?" asked a confused Dawn.
"He burns easy," replied the blonde with a shrug. She slipped an arm into the crook of Dawn's elbow. "Why don't you come and watch me fight over on the Dueling Mound? It's really fun. There're lots of challengers, but I always win." Once again, she puffed up with pride. "Nothing defeats Buffy the Bold. Not forever."
Dawn shook her head. "There's something I need to find right now, but maybe I can come by later."
"That'll work," Buffy told her cheerfully. "Just listen for the herald. The bugle blows every hour or so to announce the beginning of a new tournament. I'll see you there. We can wait for you if you like."
She sprinted toward the nearby trees, the Dark Knight following in her footsteps. Dawn blinked as they both disappeared and the bard made yet another appearance, strumming tunefully. This time, he sported a cap of russet brown and Dawn lifted her hand in greeting, but the musician had already blended into the undergrowth before she had a chance to wave.
Becoming increasingly despondent, Dawn continued her search for the wren. Birds chittered merrily from the overhanging boughs but none of them proved to be the fledgling she was seeking. Without realizing where she had been wandering, the teenager suddenly found herself in a completely different area of the park. It was serene here and the gentle breeze was considerably warmer. The area was devoid of trees, except for one lone sapling located in the center of the clearing. Willow sat nearby, cross-legged with palms upward on her knees. A fast-melting frozen mocha had been laid atop linen napkin at her side.
"I thought you wouldn't need this place any more," commented the teenager, picking a spot on the grass next to the redhead and joining her on the ground.
Willow slowly opened her eyes and regarded Dawn with a self-effacing smile. "Habits are hard to break," she mused.
"I can't seem to find the wren," Dawn told her ruefully. "Couldn't you cast a spell or something so I know where it is?"
"Can't help you with that," the redhead replied with a sorrowful shake of her head. "Takes more power than I can use."
Dawn blew out a frustrated puff of air and cast her gaze around the clearing. Just beyond, she spied the ever-present darkness, and noted with a shudder that it appeared even gloomier than before. "What's out there?" she asked nervously.
Willow didn't even follow her gaze. "Can't say," she replied, reclaiming her mocha. She took a huge sip and licked her lips. "Want some?" she offered the teenager with a bright grin. "Very yummy."
But Dawn wasn't to be so easily deviated. "Can't say or won't say?" she demanded, narrowing her eyes.
Willow shrugged as she rose to her feet. "You get the same result either way."
Craning her head back, Dawn looked up at her. "Have you seen the Queen?"
The redhead nodded emphatically.
"Today?" asked Dawn hopefully.
Willow shook her head. "Oh no, not today."
"Do you know where I can find her?" Dawn persisted.
"Where's the wren? Where's the Queen?" she echoed with a mournful sigh. "I don't have those answers. You'll have to look somewhere else."
"But I thought you knew pretty much everything," challenged the teenager.
Willow agreed. "That's a popular misconception." She held out her hand to help Dawn up. "Have you considered maybe asking me something else? Like square roots, maybe? I'm good at square roots, and those answers never hurt anyone."
"Wait." Concern bubbled to the surface and Dawn affixed Willow with a worried frown. "Something's going to hurt me?"
The redhead's expression melted and she regarded Dawn with great sympathy. "The truth always does." Then her face lit up with the brilliant glow of a new idea. "Oo! I know what you need! How about I take you to get some cotton candy!" She obviously found the thought absolutely delightful, and did her utmost to infuse the teenager with her enthusiasm. "There's this place I know – best stuff around. You can eat all you want, and it'll never fill you up. Whadda ya say?" Willow nudged Dawn encouragingly with her elbow. "My treat?"
"I need more than that," Dawn attempted to explain, but Willow waved her hand dismissively at the statement.
"You shouldn't pass this up," she advised with an air of authority. "It's never the same twice."
Dawn opened her mouth to respond, but the sound of a bugle being blown echoed in the distance and she cast a hurried glance over her shoulder. "I don't have time," she apologized, beginning to jog away, toward the sound.
"You'll change your mind!" Willow called after her, but the teenager had already disappeared from sight.
As she hurried toward the Tournament Grounds, Dawn suspiciously eyed the tall figure of a young man leaning casually against the trunk of a sturdy apple tree. Arms folded across his chest, he wore the uniform of a high-ranking Roman Centurion. Bronze studs decorated his leather breastplate and his helmet sported a stiff brush of bright blue. He pushed away from the tree as she approached and fell to one knee in her path.
"Ah, beautiful damsel." Dawn blushed as he gazed up at her adoringly. "Please honor this, your humble servant, by bestowing upon him a favor so that he might fare well in the battle ahead."
Dawn stared in confusion while the gallant Centurion shifted uncomfortably as a sharp stone jabbed into the flesh of his kneecap.
"A favor," he insisted. Dawn continued to be perplexed. The Centurion struggled to his feet. "A scrap of fabric," he suggested, "or a ribbon?" He grimaced as he rubbed his knee.
Dawn's face lit up and she pulled the circlet off her hair. "What about one of these?"
He nodded enthusiastically and Dawn tugged at one of the green silks until it slid free. With a happy grin, the young soldier wrapped it around his arm and motioned for Dawn to secure it. She tied it neatly into a bow and then stood back to admire her handiwork. His grin broadened. "Cool," he told her, all pretense of formality discarded. "Gonna come watch me fight?" She nodded enthusiastically and, with a pleased grin, he hurried away. The summoning bugle sounded a second call as Dawn followed.
She soon reached the Tilting Yard where two jousters balancing heavy lances faced each other from either end of the course. One she recognized immediately – it was the Dark Knight mounted, not surprisingly, upon an ebony horse. The other, she hadn't seen before, but he was apparently the antithesis of his opponent, astride a white steed and decked out in shiny silver chainmail. Both had a strip of gold braid fluttering from their helmets. Searching out higher ground to watch the upcoming confrontation, Dawn found a nice spot beneath a nearby alder. William the Seeker nestled comfortably in one of the low-lying branches, resting his back against the trunk.
"Couldn't hit the broad side of a barn," he heckled, following the jibe with, "Betcha my lance is twice as long as either'a yours." He grinned down at Dawn and pulled a tin of tobacco and packet of rolling papers from a pocket inside his cloak. He tipped a goodly amount of the shredded dried plant onto one of the thin papers, spread it evenly and then ran his tongue along one side before rolling it between his thumb and forefinger. He tucked it behind his right ear and then repeated the process.
"Can I bum one of those?" asked a passing duelist wearing a very nice armored suit of black leather. A small knife was fastened at her belt.
William considered the request. "It'll cost ya."
The female fighter appeared put out at the response. "Any idea what 'bum' means?" she queried sarcastically.
William nodded. "Still gonna cost ya," he smirked.
"Screw you," responded the fighter with a scowl as she stomped away.
"You wish," taunted William. The only response he received was a rude gesture.
Dawn watched the exchange with some interest and chuckled. She cocked her head. "Don't suppose you've ever met the Queen, huh?" she asked, not really holding out much hope.
"Sure have," answered William. "Lovely lady. Always ready with a nice hot cuppa and a chocolate biscuit or two – and some decent conversation to boot. Don't minding listenin' to your troubles neither."
"Does she ever come to the Tournament?" the teenager queried expectantly.
William thought for a moment. "Sometimes," he admitted. "Violence ain't really her thing though, y'know?"
"Suppose she'll be here today?" asked Dawn.
"I wouldn't think so," he pondered. "Why? You wanna see her?"
Dawn nodded emphatically.
"Could be arranged. Maybe. If you got the coin." As though he didn't much care one way or the other, William cast the teenager a sideways glance.
Ruefully, Dawn shook her head.
He gave a resigned sigh. "Oh, well. Probably couldn't have set it up anyway."
Hiding her disappointment, the teenager regarded the two jousters. "Who do you want to win?" she asked.
William shrugged. "Suits me if they finish each other off, to be honest, pet. Last thing I need ‘round here's extra competition."
Dawn gave the statement some thought as she eyed the two jousters speculatively. "The dark guy looks more determined."
"He's not half the bloke he used to be," scoffed William, "and the other one, well he's nothing but a poor man's Sir Galahad." He jumped down from the tree branch. "I don't think I'll bother to watch. It's a foregone conclusion, ain't neither of 'em gonna be there at the finish line." He sauntered away, pulling the hood over his head.
"Wait," called Dawn. "Do you know where I can find Buffy the Bold? I promised to watch her fight."
William stopped mid-stride. He pulled a flint from his inside pocket and struck it against the bark of a nearby tree, using the spark to light his cigarette. Taking a deep pull, he turned and faced Dawn with a sneer. His words were interspersed with wisps of gray smoke.
"Buffy the Bloody Irritating?" He jerked his chin past the Tilting Yard. "She'll be down there at the Dueling Mound." Shaking his head scornfully, he swaggered in the opposite direction, boot heels leaving deep grooves in the soft earth. "Always gotta have an audience," he griped as he walked away.
Dawn stared for a moment and then headed off in the direction William had indicated. As she passed a small field, she noticed the Centurion standing toe-to-toe with a hulking Barbarian-type swinging a wickedly spiked club. Although he was giving away a good few dozen pounds, the Centurion had the advantage of speed and agility on his side – not to mention a superior level of intelligence. Dawn watched proudly for a second as the green ribbon, still tied in a neat bow, fluttered gaily each time the Centurion bobbed and weaved, wielding his broadsword with elegant grace. A besotted bevy of young girls had gathered by the fenced area and exhaled deeply with admiration each time the Centurion executed the slightest move.
Dawn scowled at the group until she heard one of them ask the other, "Whose favor do you suppose he's wearing." Another one sighed heavily. "Dunno. I just wish it was mine." A smirk of immense satisfaction plastered all over her face, Dawn moved on.
The Dueling Mound was a mass of activity, although nobody was actually on the mound itself apart from Buffy who was overseeing the surrounding low-lying area like a general. Pairs of paladins, weapons gripped tightly in fists, attacked each other with ferocity. Among the combatants was the female who had asked William for a cigarette. She was locked in a particularly intense showdown with a woman wearing a suit of forged bronze who sported a ragged strip of purple fabric tucked into her gauntlet. The pair surveyed each other cautiously as they warily circled.
"You know that's not yours," accused the one in black leather, jabbing disdainfully at the favor with the tip of her sword.
"Not really anyone's right now, is it?" the other retorted, nimbly evading an openly telegraphed lunge. "And you know I hate losing."
Swords clashing fiercely, the two women were locked in a moment of intense battle, the attacks and counter-attacks coming so quickly they appeared to Dawn as a blur. In the wake of the frenzy, neither seemed to have gained an advantage, though the leather-clad warrior shot her opponent a cocky grin.
"Better start learnin' t' love it. You an' losin' are about to have a whole lot in common."
Rolling her eyes, the other woman blocked a sword swing aimed for her head. "You know, maybe if you'd try shutting up now and then, you'd actually hit me."
The squabble-slash-battle continued, but Dawn's attention was diverted by Buffy, waving from atop of her tiny hill. "Hey, glad you could make it," she called out. "Stick around. I'm fighting the winner of all this. Maybe if you watch, you can learn something."
"I already have," Dawn confirmed with a smile.
"Doesn't mean I don't still have a lot to show you," countered Buffy assuredly. Crossing her arms, she peered down at the dozen or so battles raging around her. Before long, her face assumed a somewhat bored expression and she shrugged in Dawn's direction. "Might take a while though," she admitted. "If you maybe got something else you need to do in the meantime ..." Her voice trailed away, lost in the depths of a yawn.
Dawn looked back toward where the group of girls had gathered to watch the Centurion, but they had vanished so, presumably, that altercation was over and done with. She glanced around, looking for something to occupy her attentions while she waited for Buffy's turn at battle. Her eyes widened in surprise as she took note of the fortune-teller tent suddenly behind her.
Mouth agape, she pointed an accusing finger toward it. "That wasn't there just now, was it?" She half-turned for Buffy's confirmation – or otherwise – but the blonde seemed to have dozed off while standing upright, her chin drooping down to her chest. With a halting stride, Dawn approached the small pavilion, just as a gypsy emerged from the side of the tent. The dark-haired woman struck an exotic figure dressed as she was in a multi-colored, multi-layered skirt and white muslin blouse. There were gold hoops dangling from each earlobe and a she wore a shiny silver chain around her right ankle. She lifted the flap and then paused, glancing pointedly at Dawn before entering. The teenager's pace quickened.
The gypsy was already seated at the table when Dawn arrived. The woman's smile was warm, and it was reflected in her brown eyes. "Sastipe," she greeted. "Welcome, please do come in." She motioned toward the chair across from her. "Would you care for some lemon verbana tea?" The spout of the kettle was poised over one of the already steaming cups.
With a tiny murmur of, "No thank you," Dawn shook her head and curiously inspected the interior of the tent.
A small bookcase had materialized since the teenager's last visit, some of its shelves lined with volumes which had no titles displayed along the spine. The remainder of the shelving was littered with an odd assortment of seemingly unrelated items, including a little bowl of acorns, a pewter shaker of salt, an eel skin, an owl's tail feather, and a pair of bone dice.
"You come in search of answers?" asked the gypsy gently, although it truly wasn't a question.
Dawn glanced at the sign suspended above the glass bead curtain. It read: 'Cross my palm with silver.' She perched on the edge of the chair and twisted her hands in her lap. "I don't have any money," she admitted.
The woman laughed and the sound was reminiscent of tiny tinkling bells. She waved a dismissive hand, laden with heavy rings, toward the monetary demand. "That," she confided, "is reserved for non-believers." She smiled encouragingly. "No non-believers here today."
Dawn returned the smile shyly and took a deep breath before beginning. "I'm looking for—" Her eyes opened wide in horror and she pounded on her thigh with a tight fist. "God, I forgot again! I'm supposed to be looking for the wren." She cast a frantic glance toward the exit.
Reaching across the table, the gypsy took Dawn's wrist and carefully pried apart the tense fingers. Holding the teenager's hand in her own, she gave it a comforting squeeze. "That's an easy one," she told her soothingly. "You'll find it right where you left it. It can't go anywhere without you."
Dawn regarded her quizzically, but the woman merely nodded wisely as though there were no more to be said.
"Oookay," muttered Dawn, apparently not truly understanding at all. She blew out a puff of air. "Then there's the Queen. She sounds really cool, then there's the added bonus of being, you know, the queen, so I'd really like to meet her." Her voice took on a note of frustration. "Only nobody will tell me where she is, and every time I want to wait for her they make up some excuse, and it's, like, everyone in the world can see her but me!"
The gypsy stifled a small chuckle at the petulance, but then her expression grew sad. Her eyes traveled beyond the confines of the tent as she glanced through the opening. Dawn's head turned in the same direction. Giles was strolling past in the company of an athletically built blonde, her authoritative attire indicating that she was a member of the Sheriff's Guard. The blonde had her arm tucked into the crook of Giles' elbow and she chatted intimately as she looked at him. His face broke into a huge grin and he shook his head in disbelief at whatever she was saying. Then, he blushed slightly and settled his glasses on his nose. The woman threw back her head and laughed as she led him away.
The gypsy's smile was melancholy for a moment and then she brightened as she returned Dawn's inquiring glance. "There are people in our lives," she explained, "to whom we will be so closely attached that, even with passing, the cord cannot be severed. The one who has passed remains ever near to the one who is so cherished. Although still existing on the physical plane – still breathing, still functioning – a part of the living essence is absorbed within the spirit of the one who is gone. Such an established bond is infinite in nature. A living entity cannot perceive their spirit while life is present in the body. Likewise, they are unable to perceive the spirit of the one who has departed because the two spirits are intermingled."
Dawn frowned and tears of frustration prickled her eyelids. The legs of the chair scraped harshly across the wooden floor as she stood up and balled her hands at her sides. "I don't understand," she accused. "I thought you were going to explain it to me, to make it all make sense, but—" Angrily, Dawn gestured toward the sign hanging in the rear of the tent. "Is it because I can't pay?"
The gypsy rose and placed a consoling arm around Dawn's shoulders as she steered her toward the exit. "It's not easy," she admitted. "Sometimes we can't see the forest for the trees." With an encouraging smile, she advised, "Think about it. Eventually you will understand." She lifted the flap and gently pushed Dawn through the entrance. "If nothing else, remember that such a connection makes a person stronger. Love, regardless of the source, is a great comfort and security."
Her arms crossing, Dawn stood on the threshold for a moment. "I have one more question," she began, turning around and raising the flap. "I keep running into dead—" She gazed into the tent but the interior was empty. No table, no chairs, no bookcase, no enigmatic gypsy, no anything. Slowly, she let the flap fall back into place. Even the sign had disappeared into oblivion. She shivered as a sharply cutting wind blew in from the north.
Within the darkened area bordering the clearing where the sapling was located, the darkness loomed. Its substance – or lack thereof – did not change, however from deep within appeared a soft slowing light. Closer it moved, soon joined by another light, and then another. Slowly and methodically, the lights approached, until finally piercing through the black veil and emerging into the clearing without a sound. Six hooded figures, all young boys, moved as one, their torches held aloft.
Dawn appeared frozen, lingering fearfully in front of the tent and seemingly unsure as to where she should go next. She turned her head in the direction of the sharp and chilling breeze, straining to hear the lilting chant it appeared to be conveying: "We hunted the wren for Robin the Bobbin ..."
She shook her head. "It's just the wind," she told herself firmly as she ran in the opposite direction. "It's only the wind."
By the time Dawn arrived at The Food Court, her breath was coming in huge gasps. Meghan, Jackie, Brenda and Ginny were seated at the same table they had occupied before and each now had their own individual funnel cake, although Jackie's was about gone and she was eying Ginny's platter. Dawn hurried toward them.
"Have you seen the wren?" she puffed anxiously.
Ginny shook her head. "I saw you watching that cute Centurion fight though." She smiled wistfully. "Was that your ribbon he had round his arm?" She pointed to the circlet on Dawn's hair. "I see one's missing." She sighed and clasped her hands together. "You are soooooo lucky."
Meghan leaned forward and frowned. "Not all the flowers are there either. Did you lose some?"
"It was like that when I got it," Dawn replied impatiently. "The only thing I've lost is the wren. Are you sure you didn't see it?"
"Nope," Meghan told her briskly as she slapped Jackie's fingers, which were snaking toward her funnel cake.
Jackie scowled and then turned to Dawn. "I think he was looking for you earlier."
"Who?" asked a confused Dawn.
"The Centurion," said Jackie with a roll of her eyes. "Get with it."
"Maybe he could help you find what you're looking for?" ventured Brenda.
"Who?" asked Dawn, confusion still reigning.
Four faces stared at her in amazement.
"Oh," muttered Dawn in realization. "I don't have time to find him." She surveyed the area with some desperation. "I gotta find the wren before it's too late."
"The Parade will start soon," Jackie pointed out, trying to be helpful. "He'll probably be in it. Just wait somewhere along the route."
With a laugh, Meghan gestured toward the 'Ear-On-A-Stick' stall. "Look, there's that whiney blond again. He's gonna get himself thrown out if he's not careful."
The whiney blond in question was demanding more butter for the corncob he held in his hand but the kiosk had been abandoned.
"Dunno why he bothered to come," commented Jackie wryly. "He's done nothing but complain since he got here." She looked at Brenda, who was chuckling mirthfully, and seized the opportunity to sneak a piece of funnel cake. She stuffed it in her mouth with great satisfaction and licked her fingers.
With narrowed eyes, Dawn scrutinized the darkened area beyond the Food Court. The bard had appeared on the horizon, sporting a violet cap. His mandolin was suspended over one shoulder and his hands hung idly at his sides. She watched the figure become swallowed by the gloom.
"Is this place getting smaller?" she queried nervously.
The four girls appeared unconcerned. "Means you won't have so many places to search," Ginny told her with a comforting smile.
Dawn's eyes brightened. "For the wren?"
"For the Centurion," snorted Jackie. "Jeez!"
Throwing her hands into the air, Dawn spun on her heel without another word and took off in the opposite direction.
"Good luck," Brenda called out.
Meghan frowned as she looked at her platter. "Did someone steal a piece of my cake?"
Jackie whistled innocently.
"You can't go that way."
The athletic blonde woman who had been with Giles earlier effectively blocked Dawn's path by standing directly in front of the teenager and extending her arms wide. "It's reserved for the performers." She motioned toward a sign reading, 'Authorized Personnel Only'. The blonde surveyed Dawn with a critical eye. "You're not dressed like a performer." She jerked a thumb over her shoulder. "Try down there."
Becoming increasingly distressed, Dawn fled in the direction of the blonde's thumb, but had only traveled a few yards when the woman appeared again. "Can't go that way either," she stated firmly. "This is roped off for the Parade. The Queen doesn't like her visitors wandering around inside the Parade route. They could get trampled by a jouster's horse or nicked with a duelist's sword. She's very particular about the safety of her patrons."
At the mention of the Queen, Dawn opened her mouth to ask a question, but the blonde was already moving away. "Down there," she shouted over her shoulder, indicating the gravel path to Dawn's right.
The teenager glanced fearfully over her shoulder. In the distance, the darkness was inching ever closer, and she could see the faint glimmer of torchlight. "We hunted the Wren for Jack of the Can ..." floated eerily on the breeze and Dawn's breath caught in her throat.
"No," she muttered with gritted teeth before quickly taking the sole avenue that remained open to her. Her feet pounded along the ground, soon echoed by the stamp of boots at her side and a flash of golden chainmail. Dawn didn't question the sudden appearance and Buffy offered no explanation.
Standing amid a small bed of marjoram at the side of the gravel path, Tara watched the pair rush past. She no longer wore the princess hat and had cut away the bottom half of her pale blue gown. She held a small embroidered purse in one hand and swiftly fell into place behind Dawn and Buffy, matching them stride-for-stride.
Willow had likewise disposed of the lower portion of her skirt, but the hem was now ragged as though it had been sawed off with a serrated knife. She had a leather satchel thrown over her shoulder and emerged from a patch of purple hyacinth. She closely followed Tara along the avenue.
Xander loitered beneath the spreading boughs of an oak. With an expectant smile, he held out an exquisitely crafted birdcage as he saw Dawn come closer, but tossed it aside upon noticing the girl's expression of grim determination and the protective attitudes of her companions. He asked no questions as the smile faded and he assumed his place behind Willow, long legs easily covering ground.
Anxiously flipping through the sheets attached to his clipboard as though searching for information, Giles' gaze alternated between the fast-approaching group and the fluttering pages. His eyes glittered like steel behind his glasses as he waited by the trunk of an ash tree until Dawn was level with his position. Then, almost in disgust, he hurled the clipboard to the ground and followed Xander's flying heels. His pace was not as swift as the others. He seemed to be deliberately moving slower, his eyes constantly watchful as he scanned for any threat that might attack them from the rear.
Lounging upon an outcrop of rocks, one arm supporting his head, William the Seeker puffed on a cigarette and watched their approach with much interest. "What's up?" he shouted, but received no answer. "Rumble?" he queried hopefully. Still nothing. He stood up and waved. "Halberd for hire here ... if the price is right." The only one to acknowledge was Buffy, who quickly shot him a sharp look and shook her head as the group raced past.
William frowned as they retreated. He shrugged and ground his cigarette against the stone. "What the hell," he muttered as he jumped down and sped after Giles. Raising his voice to ensure it carried to the entire group, he announced, "I'm bored, so this one'll be a freebie ... but don't expect it every bloody time."
Anya pushed open the door to her kiosk, sharp eyes peering suspiciously into the dusk that had descended. Her expression became infuriated as she spied six cloaked figures vaulting over the turnstile.
"Hey!" she yelled. "You! No getting in without paying!"
As the youths continued walking away, paying her no attention, she frowned to herself. "Though I suppose you were getting out, not getting in ..." A flash of inspiration. "No getting out without paying!" she demanded, but none of the figures spared her even a glance as they continued their inexorable push forward.
Her face crinkling with belligerence and outrage, Anya ran to the turnstiles and dragged a wooden barrier across the path. Racing to her kiosk, she rummaged under the counter until she found the sign she was looking for. In an untidy scrawl it read: 'Keeper of the Coin on break. Absolutely no admittance without prepaid ticket. Wait.' Beneath those words, someone had printed in a neat and precise hand: 'Thank You. The Management.'
She quickly hooked the sign to one of the barrier's upright posts and then hurried back to the booth. Scooping all the money into two canvas purses, she tied the strings together and then slung the entire bundle around her neck like a packhorse. Locking the door behind her, she followed in the wake of the interlopers. They were a good distance ahead by now, but easy to spot given their flickering torches.
Despite her anger, a smile of satisfaction crossed Anya's lips at the cheerful jingle of the bags as she ran. All in all, it had – financially speaking – been a very prosperous day.
Dawn stumbled as she crashed through the undergrowth. Immediately, Buffy reached down and, grabbing a handful of shirt, hauled the teenager to her feet. Dawn's gaze instantly traveled upward at the sound of a plaintive chirp and she could see the vague outline of a nest within a crook of two boughs.
As Dawn raced toward the tree, Buffy positioned herself upon a small hillock, feet astride. Pulling a long-bladed dagger from the top of her boot, she tossed it toward Xander who was standing on her right. He caught it deftly and held it aloft. She then glanced at Giles on her left – the direction of the tree. He was gripping a thin rapier, slashing the air in front of him with considerable skill. She looked over at William, loitering in the shadows by the clearing entrance with a length of wire coiled around his gloved hands.
"What happened to the halberd?" she challenged.
He shrugged. "Must've left home without it."
Buffy nodded curtly and withdrew her sword. Grasping it tightly with both hands, she held it out in front of her, poised and ready.
Tara and Willow had already claimed a spot on the grass. Sitting Indian-style across from each other, they had emptied the contents of their bags onto the ground between them and, with fingers extended, were circling the immediate area. The all-encompassing arc sparkled with bright twinkles as they chanted:
"Morrigu of Raven Forces,
Bless us with your vast resources.
Give us strength to turn the tide
And stand in battle at our side."
Dawn began to scale the tree. It was far from easy – no ladder to lend assistance this time – but she managed by leaping for a low branch and, with some effort and much kicking of feet, pulling herself up. She frowned with concentration as she climbed, stopping only to glance over the treetops, where the flickering torchlight was now at the edge of the clearing, as were the six boys. She squeezed her eyes closed as she heard the lyrics of the foreboding rhyme: "We hunted the Wren for Robin the Bobbin ..."
The sounds of a scuffle quickly followed; weapons being wielded with ferocious efficiency. Dawn scrambled ever higher and stretched out an arm to drag herself closer to the nest. She could almost see the bird now, just another few feet to go, but then, she nearly slipped at the furious voice that sharply penetrated her absorption.
"Giles! Giles! Stop them! They didn't pay!"
Still the sounds of battle covered the area, until Anya's voice once again reached Dawn's ears, this time in the form of a strangled yell of warning. "Xander, watch out!" It was followed by a soft thud and a moan.
Fearfully, Dawn peered down, a look of horror crossing her face. "No!" she yelled defiantly, as though her protest alone had the power to alter the image before her.
Xander was on his knees, hands covering his face, blood spurting from between his fingers. Dawn choked back a sob. Blinking through her tears, she followed the trail of coins that had spilled across the floor of the area. They led her to Anya's fallen body. Cleaved at the neck, she still clutched one of the canvas purses. Dawn darted a quick glance toward the six hooded figures, straining to catch sight of their faces but to no avail. They seemed impassive to the carnage and, as far as the teenager could tell, had progressed no further into the clearing.
"Move it ... now," Buffy hissed in Dawn's direction as she jumped down from her hillock. Although the blonde was dozens of feet away, Dawn heard the words as easily as if they had been whispered directly into her ear. With a deep, steeling breath, Dawn blinked away her tears, set her jaw in a firm line, and inched further along the bough.
A sudden burst of white-hot heat brought the teenager up short once more. Almost too afraid to look, she turned her head to see William engulfed in a blazing inferno. The flames licked hungrily at his thick black cloak and traveled rapidly upward.
Frozen in panic, Dawn stared at the surrounding darkness. It was invading the area, slowly and methodically, gradually drawing a veil over the teenager's vision. William's still-burning body was consumed not only by fire but also by the somber shades until not even a spark remained. Anya was also swallowed with horrifying swiftness. In a flash of gold, Buffy then vanished into the gloom, closely followed by Tara and Willow, eyes closed with hands extended toward each other and fingers intertwined. And still, it seemed as though the hooded figures had not moved so much as a single muscle.
Dawn looked to Giles, who motioned with his head for her to keep climbing. He reached out for Xander, now unconscious upon the ground, but could do nothing to halt the steady march of the encroaching murkiness and the carpenter slipped away. Dawn clung to her branch, her eyes fixed with horror on the scene below, when she heard Giles' voice.
Quickly, her eyes darted in his direction, but he was not facing her and his mouth was not moving. Nonetheless, she heard his voice. "This is how it must be."
He stood alone against the six boys who regarded him solemnly. "We hunted the Wren for every man," they chanted softly.
Giles probed the darkness with his rapier, eyes straining to focus upon the figures in front of him, but the image was wavering. He moved closer and, as a petrified Dawn watched, was devoured by the enveloping fog. Now, only the boys remained – the boys and their flickering torches. And Dawn. Until the youths too faded into oblivion, leaving the fluttering flame of one lone torch, which soon sputtered out of existence.
Dawn gritted her teeth and lunged for the bough above, where the wren was waiting. Her fingernails scraped against the branch and she scrabbled with her feet to maintain balance but her efforts proved fruitless. With arms and legs wheeling wildly, she toppled into the void below as a shimmer appeared around the crown of the tree – a sort of whitish-green glint reminiscent of heat radiating from a stretch of desert highway.
Buffy's eyes suddenly widened. "She's gonna fall." There was no question in the Slayer's voice, it was a certainty, and without hesitation, Buffy took off at a dead run toward the tree. Giles was but a few moments behind.
With arms outstretched, the Slayer caught Dawn before she hit the ground and the teenager blinked at her sister in confusion.
Giles stared at the motionless body of the baby bird laying in the grass. Its tiny beak was open, as though it continued to search for food. The demolished nest had fallen a few feet away – a pitiful pile of dried mud, broken twigs and twisted straw. He shook his head sadly. "I couldn't save it," he whispered.
Xander, Tara and Willow rushed past the Watcher in their anxiety to check on Dawn, who was now standing somewhat unsteadily on her feet and being supported by a diligent Buffy.
"You scared the you-know-what outta us," Willow chastised as she gathered the girl into her arms and held her tight. Xander's addition made the group hug official.
Gently, Tara smoothed Dawn's hair back from her forehead. "Are you okay, sweetie?"
The teenager nodded and then glanced over Willow's shoulder at the little wren. Her lips trembled and she closed her eyes as a tear trickled down her cheek. Tara followed the gaze and then looked at Giles, moving to lay a comforting hand on his arm.
He looked toward her, then his eyes were drawn back to the tiny bird. "I couldn't save it," he repeated, lifting the body and reverently placing it in his hand.
"You tried, Mr. Giles," she told him softly. "It wasn't your fault."
With a deep-rooted sigh, he tugged off his glasses and rubbed the bridge of his nose. "I was just too late."
Kneeling on the ground, Dawn carefully patted the tiny mound of earth, nestled protectively within the gnarled roots of the large tree that dominated the backyard. The others stood vigil around the teenager, solemnly silent as they paid their respects.
"It'll be okay, right?" asked Dawn with undisguised anxiety. "Nothing'll dig it up, like ... like a stray dog or a weasel or something?"
"I think we're pretty safe from the weasels," Xander assured. "But I'll find a nice heavy rock and we can put that on top. Should keep out any digging scavenger-types."
Dawn glanced up at the carpenter with a hopefully expression. "You will?"
"Just as soon as we're done here," he promised with a sad smile.
This was all the guarantee Dawn needed, and she turned back to the little grave. Behind her, looks were exchanged and a general feeling of ineffectiveness shrouded the gathering. Nobody seemed to know what to say, but then Dawn broke the silence.
"I killed it," she muttered in a broken voice.
Immediately, a chorus of protestation filled the air, each person quick to refute the words.
"I killed it!" Dawn insisted from between angry, clenched teeth. Silence once more prevailed, and it was a long moment before the teenager further clarified. "If I hadn't gone up there, it would still be alive."
"Yeah. Maybe," Buffy replied in a gentle, but undeniably factual tone.
As Dawn's head slumped even further, Willow and Xander turned on their best friend with horrified expressions.
"Buffy!" exclaimed an appalled Willow.
"Wait, hold her down, Buff – I'll twist the knife some more," snapped Xander.
Buffy's voice overrode them both. "It's true, and I won't lie to her." Her expression softening, the Slayer placed a hand on her sister's head, and Dawn glanced up with tears brimming in her eyes. "Maybe it would still be alive," Buffy told her. "And maybe it would've lived for another day, or two, or maybe it would've died half an hour from now. But it was abandoned, so the only thing we know for sure is that it would've died." Stroking Dawn's hair, she gazed down at her with a proud smile. "Without you, Dawn, it would've died anyway."
Catching on, Willow nodded her head. "Yeah. Yeah, you tried, Dawnie," she echoed supportively. "A-And that's the true Scooby way: to try, no matter what."
Dawn smiled, just a little, then turned back to the mound, contemplative. Everyone continued to watch her for a minute, lost in their own thoughts.
Buffy was the first to turn away. She placed one hand on Willow's shoulder and the other on Xander's, urging them both to come with her. Without a word, and sparing one final sad glance at Dawn, they followed. As they approached the house, their conversation drifted back to the burial site.
"I-I don't know if I can handle this whole animal responsibility thing," said Willow, clearly frazzled. "The repeated fish deaths, Miss Kitty ..."
Xander was quick with the attempt to cheer her up. "If we ever get a puppy, we'll teach it to attack you on sight so you can't infect it with your wacky pet vibes, okay?"
"You have strange solutions." Willow pointed out.
"Well you have strange problems," Xander counter-pointed.
Only Giles and Tara remained. Giles stepped forward, a mournful and oddly guilty expression marring his features. "Dawn. I'm sorry."
Sniffing, Dawn glanced up. She was still quite obviously upset, but her smile was genuine. "You tried," she stated, no hint of blame in her words. "And that's the true Scooby way."
Giles gazed at the young girl with extreme fondness, then regarded the small grave. "Alis volat proprii," he whispered.
Confused, Dawn turned to the Watcher, but he didn't explain. He simply turned away walked toward the house, fishing in his pants pocket for a handkerchief.
Dawn turned her puzzled frown to Tara, shaking her head. "I don't understand."
Lowering herself to the cool ground, Tara joined Dawn, sitting cross-legged before the tiny mound. She reached out and took one of the teenager's hands, inspecting the broken fingernails and particles of embedded brown dirt.
"It will always need its mother," Tara began in her soft voice, "but it no longer needs its mother. Does that make sense?"
"Kinda," Dawn replied, though she sounded far from sure. Glancing back over her shoulder, she watched as Giles climbed the porch steps, his shoulders hunched and hands thrust deep into his pockets. "At least it was in English."
"'She flies with her own wings.'"
Dawn turned back at those words, and the blonde offered her an understanding smile. Saying nothing more, Tara stood again and followed the others, leaving Dawn kneeling before the little grave.
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